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.