February 11, 2018 – Learning from Salmon

Text:  Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you ever watched salmon swimming upstream? Once my family and I watched thousands of salmon running upstream in Ladysmith. It’s an eye-opening experience. Despite some obstacles – rocks, shallow water, and bears – nothing could stop those salmon from travelling their long journey home. Their strength, vitality and determination made a way. They were born that way. It was as if they were being drawn by the invisible life force, something they could not fail to follow.
Imagine the life cycle of the salmon, the incredible migration, travelling through the river, the ocean, and the estuary where the ocean and the river meet, and the river again, and even to their natal spawning ground. How can salmon find their way back to their birthplace to reproduce after migrating across thousands of miles of open ocean? When they are in the ocean they use their special ability to locate the general position of their natal river, and once close to the river, they use their sense of smell to home in on the river entrance.
I found in my boys’ bookshelf an interesting book, Salmon Stream, written by Carol Reed-Jones. At the end of the book, Carol explains the salmon cycle; parts of the story attracted my attention. “When young salmon migrate downstream to the ocean, traveling by night, hiding and resting in pools by day, if they are forced to linger too long in any resting place along the way to the ocean, they may lose the urge to migrate. Then the young salmon may not complete the cycle and spawn.” I thought this was interesting. The challenge for salmon not only comes from other creatures like bears, wolves, eagles, bigger fish or humans, but also from within, when they lose their desire to continue their journey, despite their heritage, despite the species-deep need to go on.
Our life is a journey. We are always on the way. We travel through a stream, a river and an ocean with various life experiences at different stages of life. At some point in our lives we yearn for home, the unknown or unknowable destination that no place in the world, however beautiful, can fulfill our destiny. There is emptiness in every heart. I would call it spiritual homesickness. It brings us pain from time to time – the pain of being lonely or incomplete or dissatisfied. We try to hide or ignore the pain or we just forget about it while being preoccupied with lots of stuff like the endless “to do” list. The flip side of this sickness is that it draws us to something we haven’t explored yet. It moves us. It makes us ask questions with no easy answers. It makes us search for the truth. It makes us knock on every possible door until it is opened for us. It makes us restless as Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
The real challenge doesn’t come from outside but comes from within when we lose our urge to continue our journey. The real danger comes when the life as we have known it becomes too comfortable to explore outside the line. Even if we started something new with great courage, we can take it for granted once we have become accustomed, forgetting how we began. Even if being a Christian is all we’ve ever known, we can still find new meaning and a new life as we continue the journey in different life circumstances. We are called to be the church, not because we have to, but because we choose to respond to the calling. What bothers me is that we don’t seem to know the freedom to be the church differently or to do the church differently. I think that happens when we are tempted to remain in the comfort zone long enough to forget why we exist. The very first words when Jesus called the first disciples were “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” That was a radical invitation to live a life differently and abundantly by moving from living for themselves to living with and for others. They took the very first step moving out of their comfort zone, only to realize that it was not just a one time event, but a way of life as followers.
It’s hard to unlearn what seems so ingrained in our minds. The story of the expulsion of the Garden of Eden is one of them. I am beginning to notice something I never paid attention to before. It’s Adam and Eve’s courage to live outside their comfort zone. The Bible says that their eyes are opened after they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After that, God prevents them from reaching out to the tree of life. And they begin a new life moving from where everything was given and predictable to the place unknown and uncertain. God doesn’t drive them outside of the Garden of Eden without blessing. First, their eyes are opened; they have been awakened; they are given the ability to discern what is good or evil, but they are not God. So they have to rely on God, knowing that they are connected to God. Second, they now know that they are mortal. They can’t take their life for granted. It’s a gift and it is meant to be lived well and to its fullest. Adam and Eve set a good example for us to live outside the comfort zone.
Going back to the salmon, I wonder if the salmon who never leave the river regret their choice. Their lives, however long, would have been lived in a safe, quiet place with few challenges and no surprises. Maybe they would have congratulated themselves on their wise decision to abandon a journey that would have certainly been dangerous and demanding. But – they would never have experienced the ocean – not its depths, its currents, the amazing food they would have discovered, the hazards that may have shortened their lives but also taught them to appreciate the simple miracle of being alive. Worship is ingrained in us as a species; we, as a people, follow the way of Christ, who embodies God’s self-emptying love that enables the whole creation to flourish. It’s always tempting to step out of the full flow of the demands of a Christian life, to seek an unchallenging spot and question why anyone would feel the need to swim any harder than they have to. The answer is simple: God wants us to have a bigger life. God wants to lead us to a deeper life. All we have to do is follow.