July 12, 2006

Knowing the Way Back

1519 page8 caponna and I sat in our tandem kayak surrounded by San Pablo Bay—the northernmost bulb of San Francisco Bay. We had spent the latter part of the afternoon paddling from a small wooden dock in McInnis County Park to a tiny island a mile and a half south. The island is named Rat Rock.
The sun was already low as we paddled back from Rat Rock, but we were unconcerned—a full moon would soon appear, the breeze was light, and the tide seemed favorable. Another 30 minutes and we’d be back to the dock, or so we thought.
Instead, an hour and a half later we sat surrounded by San Pablo Bay: average depth—two inches, and dropping.


It was our first time paddling this stretch of the bay, and the mudflats confused us. The paddling guidebook had warned about mudflats at low tide in other popular kayaking spots, but there was no such warning about this spot.
When our paddles started digging into mud, we began working our way farther out from shore in search of deeper water. There would be a deeper channel leading us back into the estuary and McInnis Park, we were quite sure.
1519 page8 linkA series of posts stretched across the water ahead of us. We thought that the end of that line of posts would signal the opening to the channel that would lead through the reeds back into the park. But the last of the posts was in water only inches deep, and no deeper channel appeared. Each paddle stroke struck mud. To the west the sun dropped behind the hills on the far side of Highway 101. Wisps of coastal fog crawled toward us over the hills.
It must be, we thought, that our inlet was still farther north. We hadn’t taken the time to identify landmarks as we paddled out toward Rat Rock. Now the edge of the bay appeared to be an impenetrable mass of reeds—and even that appearance was fading in the gathering darkness. There were clouds to the east. No moon appeared.
Only Mudflats 
The water proved to be no deeper farther north or farther from shore. We pressed on for another half hour, but there were only mudflats. Then we glimpsed a row of what appeared to be duck hunters’ blinds1 not far ahead, and we quit paddling.
“I’m sure we would remember if we had passed those,” I said to Donna.
“Yep,” was all she said.
We dug our paddles in to turn the kayak around, but it crawled a few inches, its keel now buried in mud, and stopped. It was 7:15 p.m., and nearly dark.
“Well,” I said, “of one thing we can be certain: the tide will rise again.”
“And when it does, we’ll still be lost,” Donna replied.
“Yep,” I agreed.
I had checked the tide table on the Internet, but only in a general way. We hadn’t yet settled on a specific location for our outing. I thought I remembered that low tide for San Francisco had been listed at 6:50 p.m. There would be a time lag at our location, but it must now be pretty close to low tide. It shouldn’t be long until the water starts to rise, I thought.
As we sat looking at city lights that stretched from Richmond around the Bay to Vallejo, a string of diminutive islands began to appear in the reflected light a few feet from the kayak. The muddy little islands marked our paddle strokes. Gradually the little piles of mud grew taller, and other miniature islands began to appear around them.
Eight p.m.—and still no sign of rising tide. The water depth was zero. We realized that somewhere off in the Bay the tide might still be receding.
To Be Caught in Traffic Would Be Nice 
At 8:30 p.m. it was still just us and a thousand tiny, muddy islands. We talked about whatever came to mind, but after putting on extra layers of clothing and still feeling chilled, we fell silent. I stood for a while, supported by my paddle plunged deep into mud, though there was no danger of our tipping over. The hum of Highway 101 was just audible. For once, I would have been glad to be in traffic.
I began thinking about knowing the way back—not only the way back to McInnis Park, but lots of ways back. I wished that we had identified landmarks that could have guided us as we headed back toward our Jeep. Then I thought of intellectual journeys I had taken over the years, and the value of knowing the way back on those journeys, too.
1519 page8Nine p.m. Still nothing but mud. I continue thinking.
I have always been curious about my surroundings, both physical and intellectual. One simply cannot grow without fresh experiences in life. But there is danger in venturing beyond what one already knows.
Being intellectually curious—asking questions rather than accepting prepackaged answers—carries a risk of losing one’s way. Under such circumstances, it is important to know the way back.
Risky Territory 
Twenty-seven years ago, as the Adventist world was swept by controversy in the aftermath of a Sabbath afternoon speech by theology professor Desmond Ford, many young Adventists who were serious about their faith found themselves in unexpected new territory, asking questions they had not previously thought to ask.
It was a difficult time for many Adventists. Ford was an innovative thinker and an engaging speaker, and much of what he said had the ring of truth. For many of us, the choice was between denying that there were legitimate questions begging for answers, and pursuing honest answers to those questions. It was an adventure, and it was risky.
In the years since, I have pursued other adventures in thought, but I’ve always sensed, as I was launching out, that it was important to be sure I knew the way back.
I don’t always return to the same spot. Life is a journey, and a person sometimes finds a better, more satisfying, more honest place than where they were before.2 Still, it is always important to know how to get back. I don’t think everyone considers that.
I cannot know the motivations of another person’s heart, but it seems to me that some whom I have known launched out on new intellectual adventures without any concern at all about how to get back, if they should ever want to. Some of them might now agree that they wish they had not lost their way, but they still don’t seem able to find their way back.3
Nine-thirty p.m. Still just mud. Donna and I talk about the tide, or lack thereof, and then fall silent again.
Ideas Both New and Old 
We have kids who are now in their 20s, making their own way, finding their own adventures, asking their own questions. I wouldn’t wish for anything else. I also hope that as they pursue their adventures, both physical and intellectual, they will make sure they know the way back.
I don’t precisely know the way to tell them how to do that; but for me it has involved not burning bridges, valuing where I have come from, remaining open to ideas both new and old. It involves thinking hard not just about the fresh, new, previously-unthought-of idea, but also about the old familiar one. It’s an attitude that includes looking around carefully—and prayerfully—as I am launching out in a new direction, making sure I have identified landmarks to which I can return, if I choose.
Which, of course, on this particular evening, Donna and I have not done.
Nine fifty-five p.m. A gentle flow of water, a fraction of an inch deep, pushes toward us. The islands begin to shrink; in five minutes they have disappeared. But we are miles from the Golden Gate, where the tide is rushing past, and the tidal flow here is ever so demur.
Moving Again, Barely 
Ten-thirty p.m. We begin to push the kayak forward, but still it drags the bottom.
Eleven p.m. We float free in shallow water, paddle toward shore, and again drag the bottom. We continue paddling, dragging, stopping, paddling again, again and again. Our arms and shoulders ache.
We are headed south now. We don’t know where the all-important channel through the reeds is. We are disoriented, confused, but we have become convinced that we paddled too far north, thrown off by the mudflats and the ebbing tide.
On the other hand, maybe we’re wrong.
Twelve a.m. At least we’re working hard and are no longer cold as we push ourselves across interminable mudflats. I’m still looking for an open route through the reeds, and still thinking about being sure one knows how to get back.
The prodigal son in Luke 15 almost lost his way for good. He just barely remembered—after a long, arduous, disheartening journey—how to get back.
A Channel Appears 
1519 page8Twelve-fifteen a.m. There’s a channel through the reeds, but after we paddle into it, it doesn’t seem right.
“It’s too narrow, isn’t it?” I ask Donna. “And I’m pretty sure I remember that the channel we were in was closer to those hills.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Donna says. “But I don’t think I remember that duck blind.”
We desperately want this to be the right channel, but we decide it’s not.
We return to the mudflats. The mud is still within reach of our paddle blades, but no longer clutches at our keel.
Twelve-thirty a.m. Another channel appears, winding through the reeds. Again, it isn’t the one we are looking for.
Just one decent landmark would have been such a good idea.
Twelve-forty-five a.m. Yet another channel, this one closer to the hills.
“Well, it seems that we’ve gone back too far south, but this looks more like what I remember,” I said. “What do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“I think we should take this one, and get on the ground any way we can. I’d much rather be walking than sitting. Any road we find will lead us out to where we can ask directions and figure out where we are.”
Twelve-fifty a.m. “Donna, remember that junky mobile home we talked about on the way out?”
“It’s over there.”
“You’re kidding. No, it isn’t.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“You’re right. I don’t believe it! That means it’s, what, 10 minutes back to the Jeep?”
“Maybe. Fifteen at the most.”
“Oh, I am so tired. I’m glad you’re driving home.”
“Who said that?”
“You are driving home. I’m so glad you remembered it was closer to the hills. I thought you were wrong.”
“Yeah, well, you could have easily convinced me I was. I’m glad you didn’t try.”
“Next time we have to make sure we know the way back.”
“Yeah, we do.”
1A hunters’ blind is a concealing enclosure from which one may shoot game or observe wildlife. While more sophisticated blinds made out of synthetic materials and shaped like small tents or forts in camouflage colors can be purchased at hunting and sporting goods stores, sometimes these structures are made from twigs, branches, and lumber, fashioned so as to appear “natural” to wildlife.
2Ellen White supports this idea. She asks, for example, “Shall we drive our stakes of doctrine one after another, and then try to make all Scripture meet our established opinions? . . . Long-cherished opinions must not be regarded as infallible. It was the unwillingness of the Jews to give up their long-established traditions that proved their ruin. . . . We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 36, 37).
3Ellen White suggests that new intellectual paths should be pursued eagerly, but also with a degree of caution. She notes, “It is God’s purpose that the kingly power of sanctified reason, controlled by divine grace, shall bear sway in the lives of human beings” (My Life Today, p. 70).
Bert Williams is director of the editorial department for Christian Record Services, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s ministry for the blind and visually impaired, located in Lincoln, Nebraska.