I have been a river rat almost all my life. One of the keener memories from my early childhood stems from the thousand or so times our family drove across the White River bridge entering Martinsville, IN (the county seat and nearest big (we thought so then) town where items not available at the little mom & pop establishments that dotted our township could be had. Whatever we kids were doing before we got to the bridge (singing, playing, fighting) I would disengage to stare longingly over the concrete railing at the mystery of the river winding away to the south (or the north as we left Martinsville). I would, of course, as my knowledge of local geography increased, find out where the White River went. It crosses the entire state, longwise and on a diagonal, starting as a tiny creek up in the northeast corner and becoming pretty-big water well before emptying into the Wabash across from Mount Carmel, Illinois. There are lots of bridges on the White and all these years later I still never cross one without looking wistfully up or down stream. Of course, now I’m looking at something more familiar. As I became a young teen I learned the publicly accessible fishing sites in our area and caught a lot of fish out the White River. Then, my father and I took an overnight canoe camping trip on the White (Indiana maintains public access sites about every 25 miles and camping is allowed below the high-water mark.) From that trip forward, nothing else would do. There are no bridges on the White River between Waverly, Indiana and Mount Carmel, Illinois that I have not canoed under and very little in the way of promising camping sites along those 200+ miles of water where I have not pitched a tent. (North of Waverly there are lots of dams and power generation facilities that take a lot of the fun out of canoe camping. Between Waverly and Mount Carmel there is only one dam and two power generation facilities – and the occasional gravel dredging operation.) Dad, siblings, friends, my wife and my own children (not yet born at the time of that first trip) have all been my companions on various legs of the journey. I’ve learned a lot about rivers in the process, how the channel changes over the years, how islands come and go, how some houses built too near the river come and go! I have become pretty sufficient at steering a heavily laden canoe through snag forests where the river has relocated trees that used to be growing on the bank. I have practiced the methods that allow for paddling a canoe short distances back upstream when needed. I have learned how to slice across the current on sharp bends and (usually) to recognize in advance where the bed of the river is significantly tilted across a curve so that the river negotiates what looks like a ‘C’ as though it were a ‘Z’ – trust me, it’s subtle from a distance but if you miss it, rounding the bend is complicated considerably. All these things are questions of current or flow. Everything on a river is.
So, on various legs of my river journey, I have put in some time thinking about that old life question of going with the flow or against it. Naturally, going against the flow is a lot more work and takes much more time and every time you try to rest for a moment – all your progress is undone. But there is a sense in which we as Christians must resist the flow of earthly culture and wisdom. This not only makes for hard paddling, it seems, if the context is only here and now, so futile.
Going with the flow is obviously easier – for a minute or two. Since all those dead trees are swept along by the current, the current inevitably pushes us along to the exact spot the tree ground to a halt against the rising riverbed. Nor is it just the snag forests. The current is always easy going for just a while before throwing us up against a boat breaking, man drowning obstacle. If we don’t resist the current at all, our journey will be short. In the end, what washes to the sea consists of wrecks and corpses. Still, resisting the current even enough to steer downstream, you still end up eventually at sea – in a canoe. Hmmm.
I know it’s all metaphor – but metaphors are helpful. I have finally come to the conclusion that the only way to avoid being washed to one ruinous end or the other is to cross the river. Every one of my trips ended with placing my foot on shore. Crossing resists the current but is headed not for the sea but to the other side. Again, it’s a picture – and yet, life as a crossing is not a new idea and if the river in consideration is the whole flow of earthly culture and wisdom – the only escape is to set foot on the opposite shore.
I’m going there. 2020 was quite an exercise in current related hazards and I do not know what will come up in 2021 but with Christ as my companion I will make the crossing.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church