The River Says

I got to the river today. 

I didn’t, as I often enjoy doing, head to Madison County and hike the mountain trails which ring the French Broad near Hot Springs.  Instead, I parked my Subaru at the old “transfer station” and ambled along the path to the “Race Track” park and then made my way back.  It wasn’t a long walk, and, because my energy was ebbing a bit, I didn’t make great time.  What mattered, though, was that I was at the river. 

Ever since I was a boy, walking the flood wall next to the Ohio River with my grandfather, there has been something restoring to my body and soul about seeing and hearing the water flow.  

After my walk, I sat for a while and listened and, not unexpectedly, given where I was, I heard William Stafford’s poem “Ask Me” echoing in my mind and heart.

“Ask Me” is one of the poems Stafford wrote about the Methow River in Washington State.  He imagines standing riverside on a bitingly cold day with a friend and inviting that friend to ask him some hard questions:

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

Think about how real, trusting, and honest a friendship has to be for it to sustain such a searching and vulnerable conversation.  To give voice to our fears, to admit that we have failed, and to acknowledge that we aren’t living the lives we were meant to live require much more courage than we can often muster.  And, we have to trust that the person who hears us loves us so fiercely and so tenderly that he or she will not reject, judge, or condemn us for how we feel.

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

The poet promises to hear the heart of the other: “I will listen to what you say.”

Next to that frozen river, these two friends meet in ways we all too rarely meet each other: in honest, respectful and mutual love.  When words are spent, the poet says: 

               You and I can turn and look
               at the silent river and wait. We know
               the current is there, hidden; and there
               are comings and goings from miles away
               that hold the stillness exactly before us.
               What the river says, that is what I say.

On the surface, the river is ice, frozen and immobile.  On the surface, a human life is stuck in mistakes and failures to be and become.  Far beneath the surface, hidden from the eye, even a frozen river flows: there are comings and goings from miles away. 

And here’s what I believe: deep down in the heart of the person most stuck, most paralyzed, and most lost in the chill of lovelessnes, the Spirit of Jesus flows.  Here’s what the river says, what the Spirit of Jesus says:  

You are alive in the world.  My life, my energy, my vitality surge and move in you.  So, live your life and live it now, fully, and freely.  Live it passionately, compassionately and adventurously

You are forgiven: don’t let regret freeze you into place or guilt paralyze you. 

You are loved—I love you—so don’t let fear hold you down and hold you back.   Love the world, love your neighbors, love the strangers as I have loved you.

That’s what the river—what the Spirit of Jesus—says: you are alive, so live.  You are forgiven, so celebrate.  You are loved, so love.