Weekly Edgework #12 - Sept 20, 2004

From Road to River Spirituality

Last night I read a chapter in the book, Godward: Personal Stories of Grace, edited by Ted Koontz. It was entitled, From Road to River Spirituality, and was written by Erland Waltner, one of my professors in Seminary. I was intrigued immediately. I am more and more taken in by the use of imagery to get at what takes place in the realm of the Spirit and in our inner lives. I am coming to appreciate more fully why Jesus used imagery so frequently. It gives us word pictures to reflect on and apply to our lives.

At the time of this writing, Waltner was 79 years of age and states that during the last decade or so he has begun to see his pilgrimage with Christ shift from being on a road to being on a river.

Now I am beginning to see my relationship with God as being more like a river which helps me get from here to there, and also actually helps carry me along from day to day, from task to task, from one experience to another. I am experiencing God as One who is not only daily present with me but One who is in motion, bearing me up, sustaining, renewing, enabling me (176).

Waltner states that he finds the river image more satisfying and helpful than the image of being on a road and wishes that he had discovered it earlier in life. It is true that the scriptures refer to being on the “Way” with Jesus, and that certainly reflects the experience of the disciples. They walked and talked and ministered together with him, all the while learning more and more about the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, in our day the road image is translated too frequently into the image of an Indianapolis 500 race track. Our times with God are like pit stops “…when racers stop to refuel, to check tires, to watch for possible trouble ahead before hurrying back into the fast lane as quickly as possible.” I agree with Waltner that the river image of spirituality could speak profoundly to our hurried generation.

In any case, perhaps I can learn something from this image at this point in my life. On the river, “…prayer times are not pit stops to refuel, but also times of overwhelming gratitude, of buoyant reassurance, and of growing hope as well as times of asking, seeking, and knocking for myself or for others in intercession.” The river calls for a certain yielding up or a “spirituality of subtraction” as Richard Rohr calls it - a letting go and being born up in spite of whatever circumstances come our way.

Much of our lives is devoted to accumulation of cognitive knowledge, or social relationships, of material holdings – but the call of God is also to the simplification of life, to letting go, to yielding up, to a detachment from what sometimes become our addictions (177).

There is so much that could be said about this image of spirituality. I must give myself to exploring this image as my own journey unfolds. It will require a higher kind of trust in God, because on the river it is hard to be self-confident that I can cover all the bases and keep my life under control. The river calls for a deeper kind of love that rejoices in the successes of others because, after all, we are all in the same boat. It calls for a trust that what ultimately really matters in life is secure in and with God.

I never have been very good around boats and rivers. And I know that learning to be carried on and by this river we are talking about is not an easy thing for me. I am sometimes overwhelmed by my ignorance and my inability to do what I know is right. I so often feel that I have only started on this river trip and that I have to keep re-learning boating skills, even once I think I have begun to master them.

I am reminded of a little book I read recently entitled, Three Men in a Boat. It was written in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome and has been translated into more than 20 languages since then. I think its universal appeal lies in the fact that, like most of us, these three men made fools of themselves because of over confidence in their abilities. Without a thought given to their lack of boating skills, they set out on a two-week trip up the Thames River. It soon becomes obvious that they have over-rated their ability to master the river and get into all kinds of ridiculous situations – some really quite funny and others quite sad. Is this not the story of our lives?

I am intrigued enough with this concept of “river spirituality” that I think I will begin envisioning my spiritual pilgrimage as a boat ride down a river instead of a road trip. Changing images from road to river travel requires re-orientation, but that is my goal – to learn the art of river spirituality. I am coming to understand more fully that the river of spirituality bears with it the power - the swelling, sustaining, renewing and sometimes wild power of God – which undergirds me as I am carried along by grace and love.