Like Rivers Through The Heart

Like Rivers Through The Heart

 

 

 

We drove up to Vermont this past week. Our route took us through rolling foothills splattered with the colors of a postcard’s autumn countryside. When we exited the highway we took a side street that ran parallel to a stream: a wide, shallow yet babbling mountain river that wove its way through trees and into the valley, beyond where I could see.

I’ve had trouble reading my Bible lately. I’m inspired by stories of men and women who’ve gone before me, whose devotional lives were stapled in place by text, as if it were as comforting and reassuring as their favorite novel or sitting down for a cup of tea with an old friend. I want that kind of faith but lately it hurts a bit too much.

It started as I was writing a note to friend who’d just lost a loved one to cancer. And I had a migraine. And with pain in my head and pain on the receiving end of my words, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly say. I figured the Psalms might be the cure. But they weren’t. I read them; I tried. I knocked but there wasn’t an answer; the door creaked open but the cabin was empty and the light in the fireplace slowly dying. They weren’t alive this time; they weren’t streams of living water flowing into my quenched and yearning soul. They were just words, words like Band-Aids for a gushing artery.

But when I looked out my car window at the river twisting its way through the valley, I felt a twinge of something I might call “hope.” For the river carried change. And change is something I can relate too, something I can see. Change is what I feel when a migraine hammers away at the inside of my skull, when a cancerous growth steals life from someone who was once standing, breathing, talking, loving and loved.

And I have little tolerance these days, if I ever had any, for theologians and Christians of ivory abstraction who say the key to faith is something like ‘trusting in the Lord’. Such notions are space shuttles observing the ramifications of a ground war. And vague instructions on faith have proven about as helpful to me as my peers in grade school were upon learning I didn’t know how to whistle:

“It’s not that hard,” they told me.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“You just whistle.”

I pray for the grace to handle these sentiments, to see the heart behind them. But (it seems to me) that they take no account of pain, cancer, death, rivers and valleys. They take no account of life, so I can no longer take account of them beyond a soft nod and an immediate effort to shift the conversation.

But, at the same time, we should not pay much heed to our doubts, the theologian Karl Barth once said. And I have to think he wrote this it while sitting by a river.

Because with change the river also carries constancy. For rivers, as Wendell Berry notes, leave marks but bear none, though the rocks, shorelines and fallen trees penetrate and cut into them at every opportunity. And as it flows the river licks and soothes the rocks as it passes over them. It is always moving, always departing, and yet always remains. And every moment gives birth to the next.

And, like rivers, faith carries me and lifts me even when I wish to remain untouched, to depart from its path and remain on the banks of my doubts and pain, watching as the waters move past. Faith may run dry, it may overflow, but it always is: always changing, moving and flowing, even if it’s just a trickle, a dry riverbed or a fossil testifying that the waters were there years ago but have since shifted its course. Either way, the river is still there, somewhere, though maybe beyond what I can still see. Faith is there: flowing, changing, staying, like rivers through the heart of everything that I am and could hope to be.

And as we drove along its bank I found solace in the view of a river out my window.

For the river carries me, beyond the mountains, down the valley, weaving it’s way through the foothills into the setting sun. All things merge into one eventually, Norman Maclean wrote. And for a moment from the window of the car, as my eyes followed the river carrying me in its fold, I could feel every part of me merging with that One. And faith trickled into its center, babbling over stones of time and cutting its way through canyons of pain and pleasure, plains of doubt, valleys of wondrous assurance.

Faith was always there, like rivers through the heart.

 

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Beautiful Bows

In the autumn of 1820, the poet John Keats wrote what would be his final letter to a close friend. In very poor health though seemingly good spirits, Keats closed the letter with one of his most memorable lines: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow”.

As fall appeared in its splendor, I took a retreat with two friends to a cabin in the mountains. This has become a tradition during my time in seminary: to take a few days each semester, clear my head, focus on studies and take hiking breaks with kindred spirits. Upon arrival I took my place on the cabin porch and became immersed in writing an exegesis paper. The view from the porch contained a small yard stretching towards a lone picnic table beside a lake, the whole scene littered with a mixture of red maple leaves and golden oak. My greatest distraction for the afternoon was the urge to lose myself staring into the foliage of the backyard. These days I find myself staring, perhaps to frequently, at leaves dying on their branches.

Because I cannot forget that, for leaves, the color of fall foliage is an event that is far from joyous. The shedding of leaves is a survival mechanism of trees, an essential part of the life cycle. On an individual scale, autumn’s color is the dying cry of collected leaves, their unified, final plea for help as the flow of chlorophyll comes to a halt and they react with gasps of color. Eventually, when the cycle has completed itself, the final life evaporates from its helpless state and it dances to the ground. If leaves feel pain, then autumn must be the most tortuous time of year, a torture that is expressed with the brilliance that people drive from miles around to photograph and gaze upon in awe. Nowhere has torture been so beautiful, except on the cross.

There is a lot of talk in theological circles of the will of man. As I took a break from writing on the porch and pushed a canoe onto the lake, I could not help but ponder this discussion. Floating upon the water’s surface, which was also blanketed with dead leaves, I had to wonder if the paddle in my hand was a metaphor for all the decisions I make or if a stagnate lake with dying leaves was more apt to fit the bill of cosmic narrative.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was visiting my seminary in hopes of one day attending. When he asked me how I liked being here, I answered quite instinctively: “there’s no place I’d rather be and not be at the same time”. There are few things I mean more sincerely. Wanderlust invades every moment of my day. Most of the time I awaken in gratitude, thankful for seminary and a calling and these thoughts continue up to the moment I take a break to scan job postings and see if I might find a way out. Yet I remain. Maybe there’s something about dying unto oneself that is so terribly beautiful and essential to a preordained structure that it cannot be resisted, even by the most obstinate of wills.

Still I am left wondering where to find peace amidst purpose, or if I should bother at all; maybe that’s just missing the point. There’s a candle on my desk that I light every time I begin writing. Sometimes I lose myself in its flame as if fulfilling one’s purpose while dying to that purpose couldn’t have a more vivid metaphor.

I do not know enough concerning John Keats to declare whether or not his bow was worthy of his calling; at any rate such a thing is not mine to judge. But I am haunted by the final words of a man on the verge of a young and untimely death. I am haunted by the prospect that all of my greatest efforts cannot make my final bow any less awkward, except for a thankful submission to the cycle of divine will.

So I look out the window of a cabin in the middle of the woods, out past a burning candle and stack of commentaries, and my gaze falls upon a lake veiled with the remnants of spring and summer. I am drawn into the cycle of the cosmos outside myself, of a lake that is awaiting the first freeze, of trees that shed and die and a world that exists in a dance of dying unto itself, a dance that ends with beautiful bows. My eyes return to my desk and I continue to pen my own role in this dance as a soft breeze rustles through the woods and another leaf drifts onto the water.