Chris McDonnell: The Flowing of Faith

The opening lines of Psalm 137 were highlighted in the Rastafarian song made popular by the group, Boney M back in 1992 – the Rivers of Babylon. It told the story of exile from a homeland and demands made on captives to sing a song that would painfully remind them of where they had been.

The psalm opens with these lines.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion
For there our captors required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

In a few words there are many references, to water, to memory, to sadness and loss.

In the UK, we identify parts of our country and those that live there by the rivers that flow through the land to the sea, Liverpool and Merseysiders, Newcastle and Tynesiders, Glasgow and Clydesiders, to name but a few. It is an association that people are proud to acknowledge. Cities have grown on the banks of rivers, they have developed docklands and ports and have flourished as trade centres.

Means of crossing rivers have developed their own folk lore, be it famous bridges, road or rail tunnels or ferries. The crossings have given rise to folk songs that have perpetuated the myth. Remember ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ – Gerry and the Pacemakers, 1965? – an iconic river song if ever there was one.

The wash and tumble of the river, fed by small streams from its source, joined by other waterways en-route to the sea, can present many faces. The tranquillity of a summer evening with a gentle flow of water washing to the sea is in great contrast to the flood waters that follow storms, when the rising of river levels leads to overflow and the inundation of homes and businesses. The State of Florida is currently experiencing the water devastation following the onset of Hurricane Ian.

But for all of its possible destructive power, the river flow is a source of life for plants and animals, fish and for ourselves.

Too often in recent years we have heard of the devastating consequences of drought, highlighting the utter dependence we have on water for our very existence.  

The significance of John meeting with Jesus on the bank of the Jordan, of his Baptism there by John at the beginning of his ministry, is evident, as is our own sacramental reception into the community of the Church through baptism.

That trickle of water on the head of a young one is in fact the head of the river that will flow throughout life, growing stronger with each passing year. Sometimes it will fall through rapids, tumble through upland pastures and fill with storm water from the surrounding land. Its flood plain will fill as the channel is too narrow to take it all on the journey to the sea. So, more space is eroded on the way, and the journey eased.

Our own experience of life is similar, from the turbulence of youth through to the more sedate times of old age, an often exciting ride, never trouble-free, the rough water of the rapids tests our determination, challenges our faith.

It is too easy to expect that the ride will be smooth all the way, that faith will always be strong, that certainty is assured. Faith is about confidence and trust in the Lord, especially in difficult times. Faith has its roots in home and family, in the associations of childhood that frame our development, of those who were there for us.

In the song released by Bruce Springsteen in October 1980 – The River – the opening lines reflect this influence.

“I come from down in the valley, where mister, when you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done.”

That serves to remind us that the influence we as adults have is significant, even if it is sometimes not noticeable to us. Young children watch and listen, copy and learn. There is a Japanese proverb that succinctly sums this up.

I may be silent, but do not mistake me for a wall.” Riding the flow of a river, living a life of faith, is a risky journey. If there were total, assured certainty of outcome then the very word ‘faith’ would be meaningless.

Later in Springsteen’s lyrics, he writes:

“We’d ride out of this valley, down to where the fields were green, we’d go down to the river and into the river we’d dive, Oh down to the river we’d ride”.

That dive into the water of Baptism is one we all must make. Living in the troubled world that it is our lot to inhabit, involves trust, faith and risk. So, we ride the rapids together.


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