Toorak Uniting Church

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Watching the River Flow

Amos 5: 24
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 18
22 September 2013

I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.
~John O'Donohue

Thomas Moore, in his book The Re-enchantment of Everyday life, wrote:

A River can give a city its very soul and yet I know from travelling the country and visiting many cities built on rivers that they have largely forgotten they are sources of spirituality. People who live in cities blessed with this kind of water need access to the river, to draw its nurturing spirit into their hearts… Spending time by a river teaches us many things, one of them the flow of life, its constant movement, and it’s clear that an enchanted life demands an appreciation of this flow.

The life-giving power of a river is a constant theme in the Biblical narrative. The Bible begins with a river in the book of Genesis: "A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers", and ends in the Book of Revelation Chapter 22 with the river of life:

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

And of course the last few lines of the passage Shirley read earlier:

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

It is the life-giving metaphor of the river as access into the sacred that interests me most. Some will know that I live about 10 minutes from Warrandyte and the Yarra River running through that town. And the quote I began with is printed on a sign that leads down to the Yarra River. There are many things I love about this River. First it is about 25 km as the crow flies from Warrandyte to the CBD (a bit further by road). But via the Yarra River it is 160km to the CBD. It is remarkable how many twists and turns there are before this river makes it to Port Phillip Bay.

Secondly, its colour, which is often the brunt of many jokes. We know it is brown because of the landscape it flows through and, sadly, it is often carrying valued earth and top soil into Port Phillip Bay. Thirdly, it changes from season to season. Now we know the Yarra seldom floods because the flow of water can be regulated upstream from Warrandyte. But the water level does change and I have seen it low with exposed rocks and much higher covering the walking track next to it.

The river, the Yarra River is a good metaphor for the spiritual life. As the author of the book of Revelation says: He showed me a beautiful river of life; and as the author of the book of Amos writes: let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Perhaps we should see the river as teaching us some of the most significant values in life.

The Dangers of Life-Giving Rivers
But as I have often said before there is little point having an over-romantic or even sentimental view of the religious and spiritual life. For as much as a river can be beautiful and restful and even inspiring, it can kill you! Watching the devastation on our televisions as the Brisbane River flooded reminded each of us that this body of water that can bring life to all it passes through can also bring death and destruction. Amos’ words may have brought hope and wholeness to the oppressed, but not to the oppressor: let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! I see more of a torrent washing away those who are unjust and those who do the wrong thing to the poor and oppressed than a gentle stream caressing all it passes by.

Twice in my life I have almost drowned. The first time was as a cub scout. I had joined the scouts at the age of 8 years old, or somewhere around that age and was off to my first tent camp. It was an awful experience. By the end of the weekend I had lost or misplaced almost everything I needed. I lost my woggle….. I lost my plate and spoon; I even lost one of my blankets for sleeping. There were no sleeping bags back then. But the most traumatic experience was that while we were swimming in the local river I lost my footing and got washed downstream. I still have a vague memory of gasping for air and then eventually being washed toward the bank and grabbing hold of part of a tree. People drown in rivers.

The second experience was many years later when I was in Papua New Guinea and I was with a missionary group building a church in the PNG highlands. Two of us, the more adventurous, decided to swim down this river just to see how far we could go. Now at this stage I am a strong swimmer. But the further we went the stronger the current became. Until eventually we had little control and the river was carrying us wherever it wanted to go. I saw a rock in the middle of the river and called to my friend that we should head for it. I hit the rock with some force and was able to climb on top. As I did my friend followed but missed the grabbing points. As he began to pass me I reached out and grabbed his hand and pulled him on to the rock.

There we sat, exhausted and wondering how we could get off this tiny sanctuary. It was some time before we saw some men on the bank calling to us in Pidgin English. They went away and came back with a length of vine. They throw the vine out to us, but it was about a metre short of the rock on which we were perched. We both came to the conclusion that we would have to dive into the water in the fading light and grab the vine and be pulled to the river bank. Now if you were under the impression that I was a hero for reaching out to pull my friend on to the rock then I am about to disabuse you of that idea. My friend said, "Ok, I’ll go first if you like." To which I replied, "That’s a good idea. Best that you are the first one to make it to the bank." I was thinking to myself I hope he does. Well he did. Like me, he grabbed the vine and was pulled to shore and we are both here to tell the story.

I tell both these stories because whenever we use an image, a symbol or a metaphor to help us access the sacred, or the divine or who we call God, we must see that it cannot be sanitized to remove, pain, or struggle, or suffering, or destruction. The river of life gives us all we need and want, but paradoxically it can take all that we have as well. I don’t mean to be glib when I use the often quoted words: Life: no one gets out alive! But with all its pain and at times terror, life is the most beautiful thing we have.

There were two funerals in this church this week. The first was a young man who in his early twenties took his own life. While there was such a deep sadness and awful sense of the loss of someone so young there was also an outpouring of love and compassion. The second funeral was for a man in his sixties who also died unexpectedly, if death can ever really be unexpected. While each funeral was very different, I felt that the same image of life as a river should be used. So I briefly mentioned John O’Donohue’s quote: I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

I am not sure if that is helpful of not. Don’t we all want to live with certainty and predictability? Most of our human, religious and particularly financial systems blindly promise us certainty, security and safety – well almost. Is there another way that helps us live with openness and a willingness to embrace surprise? But of course it also opens us to fear and adventure; to shock and amazement.

I think that that is the image of the river of life. It gives both stability when we need it but forever reminds us if the unpredictability of Life and that we all must embrace the changes of course that the river offers us, not as a judgement, but as a gift.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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