Peace Like a River

riverA number of years ago, my kids and grandkids and I started getting together on Sunday evenings for what we call “family dinner,” where we pitch in and share a meal before the new work week begins. It’s been a mostly fun tradition, a way to be actually present with one another in person—enabling us to see each other’s’ smiles and look into each other’s eyes, and give and receive actual hugs. It’s a welcome, real-world contrast to the largely electronic way we “connect” with others through text or social media messaging these days. And of course, they are some of my favorite people in the world, so I love being with them.

Sometimes we do things instead of just meeting for dinner. Last month we went over to Mt Summit State Park one Sunday and went kayaking—it was a beautiful summer day and we had a great time. (And if you haven’t been to Mt Summit State Park, it’s definitely worth the trip over.) Last Sunday we brought food to Fortville Park, a park for us that holds 20 years of baseball memories. I find it fascinating how—and this gets more pronounced the older I get—when I physically go back to a place that has meaning for me, the memories created there are still alive somehow, right there, living just behind the present moment.

As I drove through the park, I could see my younger self sitting on the bleachers the day my son Christopher, in fourth grade, went blasting toward home plate as the catcher scooped up the baseball, and in one smooth move, Christopher jumped over the catcher’s back and landed in a cloud of dust on home plate. He immediately looked toward the bleachers and when his eyes found mine in the crowd of parents, he shouted, “I flew!” Feelings live on in that memory for me: Joy. Fun. A feeling that life is good, and goodness is everywhere.

I saw the moment five years later when my youngest son, Cameron, then in third grade, was on the mound, warming up to pitch. Pitching wasn’t his favorite, but the coach insisted that he was one of only two players they had on the team that year who could pitch. He threw a ball to the coach at home plate, who was squatted down like a catcher. The coach caught it and then turned to say something to a person next to him, and not looking, he threw the ball back; it went high and it hit Cameron right in the mouth before landing in his glove. I watched my son’s reaction; I stood up in the stands, ready to run out and see if he was okay, but I didn’t want to embarrass him. I could see from his eyes that he’d been hurt. The coach looked back at him—not having seen the ball hit him in the face—and motioned for him to throw the next warm-up pitch. Cameron glanced at me—somehow sending me a subliminal “I’m okay” message—threw the ball to the coach. After the first three outs in the game, I went to find him in the dugout. His mouth was bleeding, his lip swollen. He hadn’t told anyone he’d been hurt: he’d just toughed through the top of the inning until he could get off the field and get some water to rinse out his mouth. The emotions that live on in that memory for me are the adrenaline of a mother’s protective instinct as well as fear, concern, and a sense of helplessness. I also feel a kind of awe that my small son would have the inner fortitude to make that kind of call on his own in a moment of hurt: The game must go on.

This past Sunday, we went to our favorite picnic shelter, which overlooks one of the baseball fields, and we had dinner together. Afterwards, we got the bat and ball and mitts and went out on the field to play. Funny how things change with the passing of the years and, mysteriously, how they don’t change at all. Cameron—now 24—pitched to his brother Christopher (who’s now 29), who swung and made contact, and the ball went high, high—over his head and straight into the overgrown creek behind him. Everybody laughed, and a few of us went looking for the ball. The search turned out to be fruitless—the ball was lost in the vines and underbrush along the edges of the creek.

I noticed instantly that the creek itself had changed over the years—it was no longer the shallow, clear-running stream I remembered—now it was murky and clogged. The creek was four or five feet wide, but branches and old leaves and algae were so layered along the banks that they covered all but about twelve inches of free-running water that flowed through the middle.

I thought in the moment that it looked like the creek was experienced hardening of the arteries—that condition where things build up and begin to narrow and limit the healthy flow—of water, or blood, or peace.

In our own bodies we know this process well. Experts have warned us about high cholesterol diets for this very reason. Unchecked and unheeded, cholesterol deposits can begin to collect on the inside walls of our arteries which carry oxygenated blood to our vital organs—our hearts, eyes, kidneys, livers, brains—as well as to our extremities—the hair follicles on the tops of our heads and the toes and fingertips at the ends of us. The cholesterol buildup isn’t too dangerous at first, but over time it hardens into plaque and continues building up, adding layer after layer and gradually restricting the healthy blood flow. Eventually this can put us in a danger zone physically. With serious build-up in our arteries, we are at a higher risk for heart attacks or strokes.

In much this same way, I think that the flow of spirit in our lives can suffer from a hardening of the arteries or a clogging of the stream. A healthy flow is evidenced by our ability to find peace, our openness to and care for others, our feeling gratitude for what we have, and our willingness to forgive and look for that of God in our circumstances. But over time, that flow can get clogged, obstructed by things we hold against ourselves and by old hurts, old memories, past events that lessened our trust in life or that caused us to doubt that goodness is possible or that God is still acting in our world.

Our Old Testament reading today is one I’ve loved for a long time: It speaks to me of God’s promise to us, that a life open to flowing with the goodness of spirit will bear good fruit and be a blessing to others. The psalmist begins the passage with a kind of admonition: If you want to be happy, don’t follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.

In terms of getting clogged and bogged down with preoccupations in this world, we don’t have to look far to discover what might qualify as the “advice of the wicked.” If we were each asked what “wicked” means, we might have different answers—and that would be normal, because we are each shaped by different perspectives and experiences. But there are some commonalities I think we would all agree on: Advice of the “wicked” would likely tell us something like, “violence is okay”, “taking care of number one is most important”, “others don’t deserve our compassion or respect”, or maybe, “the end justifies the means.”

I think of “treading the path that sinners tread” as an endless stream of temptations, designed to take our minds and hearts off God. Instead, we glorify and indulge our desires; we justify our behaviors; we forget to keep God, goodness, light, truth central in our lives. And “sitting in the seat of scoffers”—perhaps we’ve all been in that seat, when we find ourselves being cynical about the world, when we deride views we don’t agree with, when we question whether even God’s love can bring light into what seems to be an ever-darkening time.

After the opening phrase, the psalmist suggests a choice that leads to a better outcome: “delight in the Lord, meditate on his law day and night.” When we catch ourselves being tempted to follow bad advice, to sin, or to scoff, we can instead choose just to think of God, to allow the river of spirit to flow freely through us, carrying away any buildup of self-condemnation, resentment, distrust, or doubt. All that we need is a simple shift in our thinking as we notice the negativity beginning to build: Oh right, God—what do you think of this situation? How would you have me see this?

The psalm tells us that if we will do that one simple thing—remembering God as the source of our peace and vision of good—we will be like trees, planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season. Our leaves will not wither and in all that we do, we will prosper.

Our New Testament reading for today is from the last chapter of the last book of the bible—Revelation Chapter 22. This beautiful passage again lifts up this free-flowing promise of God, showing us where we’re headed—to “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God.” The river is described as carrying the goodness and blessed abundance of life to all—producing fruit of all kinds, offering leaves “for the healing of the nations.” In this place of perfect, flowing life, scripture says, “nothing accursed will be found there any more” and the Lord God will be our light.

Whether we’re cleaning out a creek, unclogging our arteries, or clearing away old resentments and unhealthy patterns that get in the way of our experience of God, the choices we make moment to moment help us create the result we want. If we want to be more open to the flow of spirit, we can cut back on the negativity we consume, just like we’ve learned to be mindful of the fat content in the foods we eat. We can keep our prayer life healthy by praying regularly and giving God the time and space in our day to help us see where hurts and fears are building up inside us. We can begin to notice when we’re being swept into the flow of cynicism and put our feet down and declare God’s light right in that spot: No matter what things look like on the surface, God’s truth, God’s love, God’s light is the animating force in our lives, our active source for peace in this moment. And now this one. And now, this one.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, George Fox taught early Friends that God flows through his children, heart by heart, reaching into the world and bringing fresh love and light in every new moment. He said, “The Lord showed me, so that I did see clearly, that he did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people’s hearts…his people were his temple, and he dwelt in them.” That is the place of God within each of us, and it is nourished, protected, and renewed by the moving, refreshing flow of spirit.

It’s worth asking ourselves what the state of our inner rivers might be. Can spirit flow freely through us? Do our ideas, hopes, and expectations get bogged down by old branches of resentments and shoulds? Are we holding on to patterns or definitions of the world that no longer help us bring light to our circumstances? If we feel restricted or weary or hopeless, chances are good that there is some overgrowth to clean out, and God can and will help us with that.

No matter how overgrown our inward river of peace may seem in any moment, God does show us how to release anything that obstructs its flow. We simply need to be willing to interrupt the stream of our own thoughts long enough to take a breath and invite God in.

The peace that we’ll feel as a result of that choice is evident from the first moment we try it. And soon, with practice, we discover another happy reality: our peace widens and deepens over time. Our river unclogs and gets healthier, blocks dissolve and we feel the immediacy of God’s peace right where we are, whenever we turn that way. When spirit flows fully in our lives, we can feel our roots being nourished, and our leaves will uncurl and we will become part of the “healing of the nations.”

That is how we help bring the kingdom of God to the here-and-now of practical, daily life. And that’s how we can realize in our own personal experience the beautiful promise of a life lived attuned to spirit: peace, abundance, and healing, flowing full and unobstructed from the love of God.

Thank you, Friends.


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