Advent Peace Like a River

Horatio Spafford lost his 2-year-old son in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1873 his 4 daughters drowned in a shipwreck. Reflecting on his personal losses, and also the comfort and strength he found through his faith, Spafford penned the words of the beloved hymn, It is Well With My Soul. The first stanza begins with these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

The phrase peace like a river also comes to us from an African American Spiritual:

I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.

But have you ever stopped to consider what it means for us to have peace like a river? When you hear the phrase, perhaps you picture a panoramic scene, serene, a gentle river winding though forests and hills, stretching toward the horizon. Or maybe you picture the low sun over calm waters, reflecting clouds and mountains and trees. Or perhaps the river at night—a bridge over a snowy river, a warm glow from a cabin on the river bank (as in a Thomas Kinkade™ Painting).

But the river isn’t so serene if you are standing in its stream. Its water is only calm where the way is wide; as the channel narrows, the river rages and roils—driftwood and debris move roughly downstream, over rocks and down waterfalls. In heavy rains the waters rise, levees break, the riverbanks and surrounding lowlands flood. The bridge washes out, The Thomas Kinkade glow is doused as river dwellers flee their homes for higher ground. Even when the water appears calm, a wise person proceeds with caution, making certain her footing is secure, lest she get carried off in the undertow. The river is a dangerous place. Whatever peace like a river means, it doesn’t mean tame.

Our Advent Peace is peace like a river. We tend to picture peace as a static state of serenity, but even when the river appears calm, its nature is to move. The terminus of rivers are lakes, and other streams, ultimately the wide expanse of Ocean which covers our globe.

Advent Peace is peace that proceeds to the Peace hereafter. In our fleeting life moments of quiet calm, or our vacillation between comfort and rage, the waters around us are moving, pulling us forward to a wider, more expansive Reality. One day, all will be made whole. We will be complete.

This is the stream we are in. Even moments we aptly describe as peaceful are ephemeral. Continuing downstream we encounter hazards and peril, but we can be confident that one day the way will open into the wideness of God’s shalom. The Christian story tells us this happens with the coming of Christ and ends in New Creation:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” (Rev. 21:1-5)

However you feel right now, whatever you are experiencing, whether terror and tumult, or tranquility, we are not yet at our final destination. The water moves, peace like a river is carrying us somewhere better.

Photo Source: Nelson, BC, Peace River (Wikimedia Commons)


J is for Journey (an alphabet for penitents)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. –Phillipians 3:12

Journey is seen, in Scripture, most poignantly in the Exodus, but it comes to describe the very nature of the spiritual life. In Lent, we describe our ‘lenten journey’ and trace Jesus’ circuitous and difficult road to Calvary. Early Christians were called ‘followers of the Way,'(cf. Acts 22:4) indicating that we are a people on the move. We are pilgrims on a journey; we are brothers on the road. We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.

Israel left Egpyt bound for the Promised Land. The end of their wilderness wanderings took them to Canaan. Israel crossed over the Jordon River and entered the land. African American spirituals pick up on this Exodus/journey motif (historically speaking the coded language of abolition):

Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land

Where I’m bound
Where I’m bound

There are two aspects of journey which I think are instructive for us. First, our current actions—the things we do and the steps we take—are determined by our destination. We do what we do because we are going where we are going. Even in the relative ease of modern air travel, we begin our journey by resetting our watches to the time zone we are heading toward. We look out the window and watch the landscape change beneath us. We count down the hours and watch the airplane’s journey on the little screen on the seat in front of us. In the same way, followers of the Way are always looking for signs of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. Are we there yet? We press on, eager to hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. Second, we also know we have not yet arrived. Are we there yet? Nope. Things aren’t as they should be. We aren’t where we want to be. We aren’t in the land of Promise yet. We haven’t arrived at our goal. 

These two aspects of our journey are in tension. Our destination determines our current action, but we haven’t arrived. This is the already/not yet tension of God’s Kingdom. We acknowledge that both the things out there and our own interior life are not where they need to be. But we don’t settle for where we are either. We haven’t arrived but we are on the move. Holding these two aspects in tension helps us to hold on to our idealism and be gracious with ourselves (and others) for not being there yet.

image source: