Shall We Gather at the River? A Reflection

Mohawk River, New York (near Herkimer)

In the course of the next several months, I will be reflecting on the theme "River Crossings." This is the theme of my sabbatical, which I and the church will be reflecting on in different ways.  I just completed reading the book The Meaning of Rivers, by T.S. McMillan. The book has introduced me to a variety of literature that has inspired my thinking about not only crossing rivers but experiencing rivers as a whole.

The hymn by Robert Lowery, which draws from Revelation 22, has a definite eschatological feel. It invites us to envision gathering at the heavenly river, that flows by the throne of God. It speaks of peace, something we often long for. One of the sections of McMillan's book invites to consider stories that speak of being by rivers. These stories often have a spiritual dimension. 

McMillan writes after having considered poems by Anne Bradstreet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Langston Hughes, noting that in the poetry of each of these three "rivers are reminders of the Spirit's own flow."  One of the items McMillan emphasizes regarding rivers is their flow. It's the flow of the river that defines its existence. Thus he writes:

Being close to rivers gives me access to elemental fluidity, informing my thought processes and the thoughts themselves. If I pause by a river, I can become aware of its motion and flow, all the more so the more still I remain, and the flow can then become a vehicle for thinking. By-the-river poetry, observant of kinetic flowing, makes use of a writer's (or character's) relative stillness in proximity to fluid motion to meditate on relations among time, spirit, nature, self, and these meditations often yield fluid meanings.   [T.S. McMillan, The Meaning of Rivers, p. 38]

In my preparation for the sabbatical I've been focusing on crossing rivers, which is a more active position than being by-the-river, and yet I'm beginning to discern that before you cross, you need to spend some time by the river, observing its flow. 

Perhaps you can join me in reflecting on this image from Revelation 22, as we sit down by the river of life that flows from the throne of God. It offers us a vision of the Promised Land toward which we are moving. Sometimes we just need to stop and observe the flow of the river so that we might experience the presence of God (which isn't easy for me and for many like me): 

  Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. [Rev. 22:1-5]


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