Sunday, September 4, 2016

Peace Like A River?

Photo by unskilledjourneyman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Tropical Storm Hermine poured rain and knocked down tree limbs yesterday, but this morning brought bright sun and blessedly cool air.  Lured by the weather, I drove over to walk the wooded towpath that runs between a river and a canal near my home.

Most people go to run or bike. They wear their high tech athletic clothes and their earbuds. I go for the trees and the river. I go for the ferns in the dappled sunshade beneath a vault of river oaks and ancient pines with trunks too big to reach around. I go for the chorus of cicadas and for the Spanish moss waving a gray benediction over it all.

For the first mile, there are lots of other people sharing the trail, and I always wish for more privacy. But, at the start of the second mile where the trees grow thicker and the mothers with baby strollers turn back, I usually turn back, too...because the trail beyond is more private. No matter how many years pass since I was mugged, and no matter how safe this trail is, my heart beats faster if I'm alone and I hear the sound of pounding feet approaching from behind. Today, I walked on anyway and tried to pay more attention to the river than to the runners.

On the right side of the path, the canal flows unperturbed between its parallel banks. The outfitters that rent kayaks stay busy, and there are always crayon-colored boats on the water. On the left side of the path, the river is broad and shallow, dotted with rocky rapids and tiny wooded islands. Kayakers don't often brave the river along this stretch. Today, the whole area echoed with shotgun fire from two goose hunters who had occupied one of the little islands. They stood in their waders, surrounded by decoys, calling in their prey with artificial goose calls. Those stupid birds flew in perfect formation right into firing range. My husband is a hunter, and since there's plenty of game in my freezer, I can't feel sorry for the geese. I can't even condemn the hunters' deceit. The food chain is a dirty, bloody truth. The river is real.

When I was young, my family had a camp house deep in the woods on a bluff over another river. We spent many wonderful weekends there. I learned to impale earthworms on hooks and watched the outside sink run red as my dad cleaned the fish we caught before we fried them for supper. We shot turtles on the far bank for target practice. I remember wasps and skinned knees and the acrid smell of bug spray. In the summer, we turned on rattly metal fans and sweated until the salt crystallized on our skin. In the winter, we cut trees for firewood, and I slept under my great-uncle's WWII army blanket which sparked my dad's memories of food rations and blackout curtains. We found the arrowheads left by our Muskogee ancestors when they played their own role in the food chain. I picked up shards of broken Coke bottles around the garbage pit and made them into transparent lids for treasure holes in the ground. Life on the river was grimy, rich, and real. We called it peaceful, and it was, but it was a paradoxical peace laced with fish guts, war stories, the nightmare calls of screech owls, and broken glass.

We say we want peace, and we walk the river's bank to relieve the stress of our frantic lives, but I'm not sure we understand what we want. The river that crashes over rocks and half-submerged logs, navigates around scrubby islands, teems with the life and death struggles of fish and birds and frogs is actually not very peaceful. Still, it draws us more than the canal that serenely follows its man-made course down an unobstructed path, sporting its carnival kayaks. When the walkers on the path stop to take pictures or gaze for a while, they don't stare out over the canal. They meditate on the untamed, raucous river...and call it rejuvenating.

Maybe all of our baptisms should take place in actual rivers. My childhood tradition practiced believer's baptism which meant full immersion at an age to know what you were doing. While I'm not part of that tradition anymore, and I don't believe immersion is necessary, I still like the idea. In baptism, we act out death to an old life and rebirth in Christ. Like the food chain, death and birth are also bloody truths, and they're a lot closer to the wildness of the river than the civility of a canal or baptismal font. A new birth in Christ is not a one-time event. Baptism is only the first of many bloody births as we are continually renewed. Maybe we should acknowledge the grimness of what's to come by performing that initial sacrament out among the rocks while the water moccasins swim by and shotguns play the background music.

In the last post, I said the current theme of the blog was loss. I suppose I'm writing about the loss of an illusion. I always thought we knew what we meant when we sang, "I've got peace like a river." As it turns out, the unruffled tranquility I thought we were claiming is artificial. "I've got peace like a canal" is not going to be the next big worship song. Neither the sentiment nor the syllables work. River peace includes dangers, toils, and snares. I'm suspicious of all the websites, books, CDs, Bible verse memes, and whatever that promise an easy tranquility. They all seem to me to be an invitation to live on the canal, but we were made for more. I still believe that even when I don't see or feel Him, God is on the river, and somewhere there is an authentic repose at the end of all those bloody truths. Maybe the best we can do is to launch our kayaks on the rapids and pray for grace to navigate toward a different kind of peace.

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