There Is a River
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam…There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” ~Psalm 46:1-4a
Dear Members and Friends,
There are few things to love more than a river. A river can be fast and loud, or it can be slow and silent. A river can be rocky, or deep, or narrow, or wide. Take a southward trip upstream along the Youghiogheny—one of the world’s few north-flowing rivers, and one of my favorites—and you’ll find that a single river can fit all of these descriptions at different points in its journey.
Like all water, a river has only one ambition, which is to be where it is not. But that’s what makes rivers so magical, more so than lakes, and swamps, and ponds; all rivers journey toward the sea, the mother of life. Their course is inexorable; you can divert them and slow them down, but you cannot stop them. The great civilizations rose up on the banks of rivers: the Nile, the Indus, the Yellow River, the Euphrates. Every great city in the modern world has its river: the Seine, the Thames, the Hudson, and of course the Ohio.
You can see why the psalmist contrasts the fearful moodiness of the ocean with the steady benevolence of a river. For the psalmist, the ocean is a frenzied, unknowable void of dangerous, useless saltwater. It’s home to the pre-Jewish chaos-god, “Leviathan,” a thing of fear. (Spielberg capitalized on this primal fear in his “Jaws” movies.) By contrast, a river is a source of life and abundance. A river is not as dramatic as an ocean, but as a religious symbol, it’s more potent and positive.
Pittsburgh has become a significant center for American Hinduism precisely because Indian immigrants liked the symbolism of our three rivers. Rivers speak of journey, and new life, and both reliability and change. The river’s endless flow suggests the never-ending march of time and the passing of all things, as well as their renewal. If I could design a chapel, I’d seriously consider making its focal point to be a mural or a stained glass window that depicts Jesus stepping into the Jordan River to be baptized. That decisive event was the turning point of Jesus’ life…and indeed the life of the world.
And so, what’s my point? Well, so much of life is a chaotic ocean nowadays, unpredictable and prone to violent extremes. An insidious extremism has made its way into our politics and our religion. It says, “All or nothing, no compromise, no cooperation.” Social commentators say that our nation is more polarized now than it’s been since the Civil War. The global scene, too, is overrun by extremism. As technology makes the world smaller, people retreat more and more into their social, ethnic, and ideological (or religious) enclaves in order to feel safe. The more they withdraw, the more they’re tossed about on the troubled seas of our times, for they make themselves smaller than they’re meant to be. “The earth changes,” the psalmist says, “and the waters roar and foam.”
And yet! And yet, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There is an alternative to bobbing around in the frenzied, troubled waters of our world. The frequent, regular practices of faith are a discipline that brings direction and balance to our living. The life of faith is a river, not a still pond, not a tumultuous ocean. It’s a river that bears its blessings to a crazy world without being overrun by the craziness, a river that bears us wisely in its course to places yet unknown. As we kick off another “program year” at Bower Hill Church, I encourage you to wade out into the river.
In Christ’s Peace,