A River Runs through It

The Bible begins and ends with a river.

A river runs through the Garden of Eden in the opening chapters of Genesis, and a river runs through the Heavenly City in the closing chapter of the Revelation to John.

“Elk River, Michigan,” Michelle Calkins

We might say that a wonderful storyline runs through Scripture just like a river: God sustains and nurtures what God has made with the water of life; and when things turn truly grim and dire, that same God heals and renews with the water of life.

This storyline invites our faith, which is to say, our trust, in Creator God.

I try always to remember that faith is not the same thing as “certainty.” Faith is our willingness to trust the God we cannot possibly understand. And I have to wonder if whether that might be why biblical writers seem so enamored with the image of a river. As the old saying goes, “you can never step into the same river twice,” because it’s always changing.

The infinite mystery of the living God is exactly like that, like a river: it sparkles on a sunny day, reflecting the sapphire blueness of a clear sky; it waters a thirsty land and promises fruitful harvests; and it will not sit still.

Just like a river, our knowledge of God is slippery; we can cup our hands to hold it but it will always, eventually, run through our fingers. As one theologian has put it, trying to speak with certainty about God is like “catching water with a net.”

This approach to faith used to make me quite nervous; I usually prefer a bit more stability, something that feels a little more secure. Over time, my love of rivers has helped me embrace a more “fluid” sense of faith. Rivers that move, whether with slow, eddy-like currents or quickly in foaming rapids, are rivers flowing with “living water.”

Water that doesn’t move—water that sits still and stays put and never changes—that water stagnates, becoming acrid and foul. The best known example of that kind of water can be found in the Jordan River Valley and is quite rightly called “The Dead Sea.”

This past Sunday was the fourth week in the “Season of Creation” and its theme was in fact “river.” This whole season has invited an embrace of faith, a deeper trust in God, the God whose own grace flows like a river for healing and renewal on an Earth that is parched for it.

We’re invited, in other words, to live with hope, precisely what feels so tenuous these days, nearly impossible in a world of runaway climate chaos.

The biblical passages some of us heard on Sunday sounded triumphant notes of hope—just like the kind Noah must have tried to muster as the flood waters were rising, higher and higher. And clearly the kind of hope the closest friends of Jesus tried to muster as they watched him die a terrible death.

We now stand on the other side of those classic stories, the side where we can breathe easier. The Creation lectionary gave us the story from Genesis about the “rainbow promise” God made to Noah (Genesis 9:12-17), and also the Easter story from Matthew (28:1-10) where startled women encounter an angel at an empty tomb.

But we’re not on the other side of the climate story, not yet. And that’s what makes faith, and trust, and hope so challenging right now in a world rather full of grim realities.

My own journey toward an ecological faith and hope was a rocky one. I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the importance of avoiding Hell and going to Heaven; Earth was mostly just a stage on which that cosmic drama played out.

That view of Christian faith continues to linger around the edges of my life and it’s common in many Christian communities; for many Christians, it’s the very essence of what the Gospel itself even is. But that view changed dramatically for me, and ironically I suppose, by paying closer attention to Christianity’s own traditions. Just one example comes from the “Lord’s Prayer.” When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he urged them to pray that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

“Heaven on Earth,” Andrea Mazzocchetti

Here, on Earth, is where God’s will should be done. And here, on Earth, is where God is calling us to spend our lives bearing witness to that earthy Gospel.

My journey, in other words, began as an “other-worldly” Christian, and I still am one, but I now believe that “other” world of God’s love and grace is emerging here, on Earth, and that makes all the difference, for everything.

So many people today are desperate for communities of spiritual practice and environmental healing, especially for ways to integrate spirituality with ecological renewal. It has never occurred to most of them that churches might actually be places for exactly that kind of community.

That’s exactly where my own ecological passion has emerged over the years, to tell the old, old story in fresh, new ways. The Church must tell the story of faith not as a story of escaping to some other world, but always and only as the story of love and healing and new life in this world.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright makes this very point when he notes that many modern Christians suppose that the Gospel presents us with a choice between going to Hell or Heaven. But Scripture, he says, is not the story about us going somewhere; it’s about Creator God coming to make a home with us, right here—on Earth as in Heaven.

One of the obstacles to that compelling vision is actually the Bible itself, especially the last book of the Bible, from which the Creation lectionary also tapped this past Sunday. The temptation is to read the Revelation to John as wild spectacles of an apocalyptic age far beyond this time and place.

But No—the outrageous visions and complex symbols of that book are not about leaving Earth but about Earth transformed.

In that final chapter from Revelation, John, in one of his ecstatic states, sees a vision of the heavenly city arriving on Earth. An angel shows him a river running through that city, watering the Tree of Life. The tree bears “twelve kinds of fruit,” John says, and its leaves are for the “healing of the nations.”

Early readers would have recognized right away the number twelve, referring to the tribes of ancient Israel and thus to God’s own chosen people. But those same readers would have been shocked by how far the healing of the tree reaches—to the nations.

That word, “nations,” does not mean “country”; it means “all the others,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” all those whom we think don’t belong with us: different races and creeds, different histories and cultures, different philosophies and religions, different species! All of them find healing; all of them reside together, praising God in the Heavenly City on Earth, and a river runs through it.

Life is short, and we do not have much time to tell this amazing story for a wounded world. A story few of us can even imagine. It’s a story of that river watering the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations—not just some of the nations, but all of them: Potawatomi and Pakistani, Irish and Canine, Nigerian and Bovine, Taiwanese and Feline, to name but a scarce few.

That’s a vision worthy of giving our hearts to in trust.

That’s a story compelling and hopeful enough to tell others.

“River of Life,” Joan Thomson

That’s the hope we must share of that river where—as the old Gospel song would have it— bright angel feet have trod, with countless dear and precious saints of God, who yet dance in the silver spray, as they lure us onward to that happy, golden day…

…a Day right here on Earth.

Divine Vulnerability

The Gospel according to John has a nativity story, just like Matthew and Luke have one, but I can’t quite imagine making a children’s Christmas pageant from those opening verses of John.

John’s “nativity story” is cosmic in scope, rich in metaphysics, and conceptually dense in its prose. Countless philosophers have spent a great deal of time pondering the very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

That lofty language, stretching back to the dawn of time, sets the stage for an equally mind-bending claim in the fourteenth verse: the Word that was with God from the beginning, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Not everything about this “prologue” to John’s account of the Gospel, however, is quite so abstract. John writes of a divine advent, a coming into the world that is marked by very human, down-to-earth realities—feeling out of place, like a stranger in one’s own land, even outright rejection.

This Word-made-flesh that John extols with such lofty language actually seems quite precarious. So whatever John means by “nativity,” that sense of vulnerability—the notion that God shares vulnerability with us—that is what makes John’s version of the story not just astonishing but also life-changing.

Notice where John begins, with three simple words: in the beginning. These are of course the first three words of the Hebrew Bible, the very first chapter of Genesis: in the beginning.

This is, in part, why some scholars treat John’s gospel as early Christian commentary on Genesis. The refrain in that first chapter of the Bible about the goodness of God’s creation runs throughout John’s gospel as well.

Goodness stumbles, of course, with the so-called “fall” of humanity in the third chapter of Genesis. And “stumbles” would be too mildly phrased for some. That “fall” has led far too many Christians to suppose that just being human is a problem that we must overcome; for others, God’s creation more generally is therefore suspect, or tainted, or even irredeemably spoiled, and Earth itself is disposable.

But that’s not John’s gospel at all.

To the contrary, John frames his account of the Good News by reminding us that the very Word of God is intimately involved in the creation of the whole world, in every aspect of it, from the very beginning. The universe, all that exists, has always been and remains God’s own handiwork; the imprint of God’s own hand is on everything.

This declaration, by the way, has direct bearing on our current climate catastrophe. Among the many reasons why ecological collapse is so distressing, theologian Elizabeth Johnson pointedly reminds us that our wanton destruction of ecosystems and habitats and countless species of plant and animal amounts to an act of blasphemy.

She can say this, without reservation or hesitation, precisely because of John’s close intertwining of God’s own creative Word with God’s creation.

This cosmic framing of John’s Gospel sheds further light on that pivotal fourteenth verse, what we might call the “Christmas verse” in John—the divine Word, with God from the beginning, and through whom all things were made, that Word becomes flesh.

Let’s pause here for a short lesson in ancient Greek. John had some choices in how to express this pivotal claim about God dwelling among us. He could have said that the Word became a person—prosopon. Or, he could have chosen to say that the Word more generally became human—anthropos.

Either of those two words is how most people likely hear that key claim from John, that the Word became a person or a human. But John didn’t choose either one of those options. John chose this instead: the Word, he wrote, became sarx—and that’s the Greek word for “flesh.”

And with that word—flesh—John signals how God chooses to be among us, not in garments of splendor or cloaked in military power or with superhero strength but in simple, frail, vulnerable flesh.

This prologue to John’s Gospel is not about the birth of Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman; Christmas is not the story of a divine superhero coming down from the sky to save us. The story of this season is far more astonishing than anything Marvel Comics has dreamed up: Christmas celebrates the Creator God choosing to accompany the creation—as part of it.

Consider what this means: Our vulnerability as fleshy creations of God is not a problem to overcome or a condition from which we need rescue or in any way cause for shame. No, our shared vulnerability as God’s creation is precisely where the Word of God meets us as one of us, in the flesh.

Surely in this time of ongoing pandemic and ecological fragility, we don’t need any further reminders of our own vulnerability or the weakness of our fleshy bodies and of the body of Earth itself; we know all this only too well.

Perhaps what we do need—what the whole wide world needs and what God is calling Christians to manifest with boldness in the world—is the reminder we hear from John: Christmas celebrates the God who meets us in our vulnerability by becoming as vulnerable as we are.

That’s what it means, John says elsewhere, to speak of God as love.