I took this picture while on a quick post-lunch meeting walk. This is Portage Creek, flowing north-ish toward Kalamazoo. Behind me runs the Grand Elk Railroad, a straight shot between South Bend and Grand Rapids. Several trains go through each day. As a resident I find myself counting on their distant, haunting presence as they crawl their wares from place to place. You can almost measure the pacing of the day by their regular howl. Today the Grand Elk crew was doing work on the railroad with the help of a machine that smooshed rocks into their place, forming a linear nest for the rails. The rocks are deceivingly inviting, betraying their sharp jagged edges through the magic of distance and blur. Though it’s called a “rail bed”, it’s not a comfy spot for a nap. The rails look perfect, even as they follow the subtle dips and rises of the terrain. How can something be inconsistently consistent? Consider the line the railroad makes across the landscape.
At this juncture of rail and water lies manmade and natural. The train tracks run perfectly; the creek wanders and ho hums its way to an eventual destination. The rails eventually terminate but the creek becomes a river, a lake, and then the ocean. Someday scientists will be able to measure the exact location of each H2O molecule so that we can trace how long it takes for a drop of water to travel to the ocean, sky, and back. Most amazing is the idea that all the water we have on the earth today is all the water we’ve ever had, period. They’re not making new water, right? It’s a miraculous ecosystem, designed to support life of all kinds. We get excited about finding water on Mars because water is critical for life. We spend $1.50 per bottle on earth.
Occasionally residents will launch their canoes or kayaks from this spot and make their way toward downtown Kalamazoo. What we do for recreation today was once the only means of business, if not outright survival, for hundreds of years. Today we have machines called escalators that move us from floor to floor without much effort (besides the inconvenience of standing) yet we get our necessary exercise by walking on trails. At least that’s what I’ve done this week. So far.
Watching a body of water flow is mesmerizing. Doing so defies logic. What are we looking for? What detail do we remember? How much water has passed us by? We have no idea. For once in our day, purposelessness is our purpose. Everything else we do must generate a result, a measurable, a benefit. Watching water does none of these. Watching water does all of these.
For those few moments we took stock in something we don’t control. We inventoried an unknowable body. We witnessed history, since no one can set foot in (or look at) the same river twice. It kept us occupied, freed us up to think about bigger subjectives, forced us to just stand there. Those moments when we submit to the flow are downright spiritual.
Remember those 3-D eye puzzles? The ones that are a jumbled mass of blehgh that, if you could cross your eyes just right, end up becoming a mountain range or the ’84 Detroit Tigers? Those things never worked for me. I always felt a tinge of jealousy whenever I’d see people just standing there, staring at a distorted bitmap that somehow led to an epiphany.
That’s probably what we look like to dogs as we just stand there and stare at the apparent nothing.
“Oh, it’s not nothing. It’s something.”
“What is it?”
“Oh. Carry on, I guess…”
Even little kids are mesmerized by the flow. Our eyes try to follow a certain wave as it flows down and mixes in with other pockets and crests. We watch as a log fights the flow back with its mass, as a mostly submerged rock gets its shoulders wet, as a leaf floats along at velocity. Where’d that come from? How far will it get?
Over the summer my sons and I would stand on this very bridge and throw medium-sized sticks into the creek, then run down the trail to see how far they’d travel. Invariably the sticks would get stuck in a bunch of other sticks & game over. Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever successfully launching a stick that made it more than 50 feet. I guess we’re not good shipbuilders.
Zac once asked if he could swim in the creek and I said no because of the PCB’s that still reside in the riverbed. “What are PCB’s”? I think I made up an answer, something like Pretty Contaminated Bits, but he gave up mid-answer and threw another stick in. We walked down the trail and forgot to check on its progress.
Rivers and creeks illustrate the kind of spirituality God wants us to experience. Flow, not stagnation. Freedom, not limitation. Submission, not force. A life and movement that draws others. Simplicity. This is the kind of spirituality that Christ brings. We want perfect lines and control, like a railroad track. He wants His Spirit to meander through us, to flow out of us, to gently carry on.
If we don’t flow, we stagnate. Stagnant water doesn’t draw; it repels. It stinks. It’s uninviting. Moss and algae happily take residence on sedentary bodies of water but can’t seem to get a solid footing in a flowing creek or raging river. Left to our own devices, we naturally stagnate. Part of our broken human nature is to resist.
Jesus comes to stir the waters of our soul. The Living Water is meant to flow through us. Advent reminds us of this and gives opportunity to wake up to our own stagnation. Flow happens when we open ourselves to Jesus, the Word made flesh. The Living Water.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, mercifully and continually flow through my life.. until my life is fully yours.