How Big Is Lake Michigan?
Daniel Silliman

I love the Indiana Dunes. I love Lake Michigan. When I think of sacred space, I think of the way that water feels endless: it rolls in. And out again. And it holds me. It is as big as God’s grace. I say that like it’s a metaphor, but in my heart it’s more. There’s a way in which I understand the possibility of grace in the greatness of Lake Michigan. I wade into the water and it goes as deep as I’ll go, and deeper, and there’s always more. It’s always enough.

I was raised in a world where there was never enough. My parents were poor and made poor decisions. They had eight kids and moved around a lot, restless and searching, and basic necessities were frequently emergencies. I worked as a child to help pay for rent and groceries.

When I was 14, we lived in Texas, and my dad and I had work replacing insulation under mobile homes. We did it in winter, so no snakes. But it was itchy and dirty under the trailers. You had to get down and crawl. You would come up, after, looking like you’d been dead and buried, and then maybe they’d decided you weren’t dead after all, so you could come up again. It was that dirty. If we got enough of these jobs, we’d be OK, financially. But they were all spread out over central Texas, and it was hard to make enough money. We’d drive and drive, covered in dirt, driving between these jobs that were too far apart, and I’d hear my dad try to exhale all the anxiety: Ahhhhhhhhh.

That is the sound of the universe to me. That’s just what existence sounds like. Ahhhhhh-ahhhhhhhh. You can feel the tightness in your chest. There’s not enough. There’s never enough.

I think that’s what the slave hears in the story Jesus tells in Matthew 18:23-35. The slave doesn’t have enough money to pay what he owes the king. He doesn’t have enough time. He says, “Please. Can I have just a little more time? I can get the money. I can make it work. If only I can stretch here and do this other thing, and if that thing works out, then maybe this other thing will work, maybe, and I can just…Almost. Please.”


Jesus says, “The lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” But the slave, it’s like he doesn’t hear. He can’t hear over that anxiety in his ears. Because that’s the sound of everything for him. That’s the sound of the universe.

I hear that sound now when students struggle to keep up with their classes and all the other things going on in their lives.

I hear that when there are problems with the budget. Just not enough money.

I hear that here when I apply for a job teaching history, and there are 200 other people also applying, a lot of them amazing, and there are not jobs for all of us.

Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

But I don’t hear it at Lake Michigan. The water rolls in. And out. There’s the sound of birds. People speaking different languages—Japanese and Russian, Spanish, German—and they’re all saying, “Wow. What a great lake!” The water goes on and on, like a metaphor. I get in, up to my neck. I feel safe at Lake Michigan.

Which is why I hate the Gundersons. Of all the people in Indiana: Don and Bobbie Gunderson. This is a couple who sued in state court and then appealed to the Supreme Court, saying they have the right to own the beach at Lake Michigan. They don’t want it to be public. They want it to be private. Restricted. Just for them.

Who would do that? Can you imagine? Who would stand, have the audacity to stand, on the shore of a Great Lake and think, “It would be better if there were just no one else here.” I just can’t imagine doing—

Oh wait, I do that. I do that all the time.

I do that when a student asks for an accommodation and my first instinct is suspicion.

I do that when I hear there are going to be budget cuts, and I hope it hits someone else.

I do that when church or chapel isn’t how I like it to be and I think, why are there other people? Why are they here, if they don’t want to do it the right way?

In the story Jesus tells, the slave can’t hear that his own debt is forgiven. So he goes out and finds someone who owes him, like he owed the king, and demands what’s his. “The debt’s due now,” he says. “There’s no more time.” His hands are around his fellow slave’s throat, choking him. The gospel teaches me to see myself like this, in these moments: “Pay what you owe!” when my debt’s forgiven. Every time I’m in a rivalry instead of solidarity, locked in antagonism instead of grace. When I can’t hear over my anxiety and I’m scared and I experience sacred space as scarcity, I am the Gundersons.

But how big is Lake Michigan?

How great is God’s love?

You can go in to your neck, and it goes deeper. Swim out. You can swim further. This is what I’m trying to do, these days. I want to crawl out from under my trailer home, filthy as the buried and unburied, and take myself to the water that waits like grace. It rolls in. And out again. There’s enough. That’s enough. It can hold me. It can hold all of us.


Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, his research focuses on religion in American culture.

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