I’ve been ruminating today about Labor Days past. Hands down, the most memorable for me was Labor Day 1977. I had just begun my internship at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Marine City, Michigan.
Marine City is a magical kind of place right along the Saint Clair River, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Saint Clair like a little patch of ocean separating Michigan and Canada. It’s not all that wide (you can easily see the Canadian shore), but it’s very deep. So humongous freighters pass by from all over the world, and you can see them up close and personal, like you’re standing on the side of the freeway watching semi-trucks go by at a snail's pace. At night I would lie in bed and hear the ships blowing their horns. The water was deep blue. In the winter it froze, and then when it broke up in the spring, the ice chunks had a brilliant turquoise cast that looked other-worldly.
My internship supervisor, Howard, was completely enamored with anything having to do with the sea. Every morning he ate breakfast with a retired captain and his cronies in a little restaurant that looked out onto the water. He kept track of the ships that would be coming our way that day and knew them all by name.
On the first day of my internship, a new freighter, the longest ever, was coming down the river, and Howard was like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. I was in the car with him as he drove down the road watching for it. As soon as saw it, Howard quickly turned onto a side road and drove down to the river, where we got out of his car to watch the freighter go by. As I recall, he took pictures. Then we got back into the car and drove to the next side street and did the same thing. We did this all the way down the river. I can’t remember how many times we pulled down a side road to get a view of this massive freighter making its trip down the river. I do remember that I stopped getting out of the car with him. And I also recall wondering at the time, “Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”
Not long after I began my year of internship, Howard really wanted to get me out on the water. Although later he bought a boat, at this time the only seagoing vessel he owned was a canoe. It sounded like fun to me. I enjoyed canoeing, so why not? On Labor Day, we put the canoe out on the water.
Well, in hindsight, I have to say that it was insane. Can you imagine being in a tiny canoe, paddling in choppy water as deep as the ocean, while you’re looking up at ocean-going freighters? It was bordering on terrifying! (I do have to admit that the adrenaline rush was one of my best ever.)
The next day, when I told members of the congregation how their pastor took me canoeing on the Saint Clair River, they were incredulous. Some were furious with him for putting me in that kind of danger.
Now, I don’t think Howard was a madman. He simply had a passion in his life, and he wanted to share it with me. What may have seemed crazy and maybe even foolhardy to most people, was an adventure for Howard. He wanted me to experience it as he did.
As I think back on my year of internship, I don’t remember much that I learned. I’m sure I learned a lot, I just can’t remember exactly what it was. But I do remember that Labor Day paddling like crazy alongside the big ships. I didn’t know enough to be afraid at the time. And I remember trusting Howard, a man so smitten by the sea that he wasn’t about to let a little thing like not having the right kind of boat keep him on the shore.
There’s a metaphor for ministry in there for me. 39 years later, it still holds true. What may appear foolhardy to some people has been an adventure of faith for me. I never caught Howard’s love for the sea, but I like to believe that I did catch the way he embraced life – with passion, faith, and just a touch of craziness.