“There is a river known as joy that flows through streets of gold, it brings the city of our God delight and bliss untold.” (Psalm 46:4)
A little stream flows behind our house. On warm mornings while it is still dark I open a window on the sun porch and listen to the waters splashing down over the rocks. The soft sounds from this babbling brook sooth my soul. I turn on some quiet worship music and am drawn into a deeper meditation during my daily devotional – the solitude being broken only by the occasional calls of geese, ducks, or other birds that make their home along the banks.
The waters of this little stream are not only soul-soothing, but life-giving. Trees and bushes planted along the channel thrive even in the driest months of the year, providing shelter and sustenance for the local wildlife. A song sparrow has safely taken up residence in one large Mugo pine as it has for the past several years. Rabbits hide in the low evergreens. A coyote is occasionally seen trotting alongside the embankment and a fawn was once spotted nestled down in the grasses on the far side. Mother ducks move freely up and down the channel with their brood of chicks loosely in tow. The words of Psalm 104 capture the scene well.
10 O Lord, You make the bounding springs whose waters ever flow, Between the mountains and the hills to valleys far below.
11 The waters quench the thirst of mules and beasts within the field; While animals on riverbanks drink freely from their yield.
12 The birds are safe in trees that thrive where rivers rush along; They nest among the verdant leaves and sing a happy song.
These words speak to the great gift of life that comes from God, and to how the Lord has arranged the natural world around water. It is water, we are told by astrobiologists, that signals the potential for life on other planets. Nothing cheers the celestial mind like the promise of finding water, even ice crystals, on distant planets. Whether or not God has created life on other planets we may never discover, but without water, life on earth as we know it would not exist. Since ancient times, communities and civilizations have always sprung up around a source of water. When Moses led the Israelites through the desert, water from the rocks was miraculously provided by God to sustain their lives. In our own country’s great westward migration, access to water was fundamental. Towns were always planted around a water source – be it a river, lake, or natural springs.
This most basic need for water, the building block of life, is no doubt why Biblical metaphors about water are so rich. From Isaiah’s invitation “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters … .” (Isaiah 55:1), to that of Jesus “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38) – the imagery of water captures the imagination. And of course the meaning is clear, we need to remain close to the source in order to live.
I write this month, not about a specific virtue per se, but rather about the power of metaphor to encourage a life of virtue in the kingdom of God.
I started thinking about this several weeks ago when a friend described how he avoids brooding over disappointments and hurts in his life. Whenever a worry arises, he visualizes it as a leaf in a stream that he observes from the bank. As the current carries the leaf from his view, he allows the concern to pass from his mind. The metaphor helps him to take his thoughts captive and dwell on what is true and right. Modern science has finally caught up with this ancient Biblical wisdom as it has come to understand the power of our thoughts to impact things like our heart health, blood pressure, etc. That said, Biblical metaphors are more than visualization triggers with health benefits – they are windows into spiritual truths that can help us re-vision our world and draw us closer to God.
I believe this is why metaphors are so widely used in Scripture. Jesus, for example, speaks of building a house on a rock, being salt and light, sowing good seeds into good soil, and abiding as a branch to a vine. Indeed, most of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God involves the use of metaphors – fields and seeds, treasure and pearls, etc. – all to capture our imagination in envisioning his kingdom. The Old Testament writers also use many metaphors – most involving “water,” such as springs, well-watered gardens, fountains, etc.
My favorite metaphor in all of Scripture is that of a tree planted near a stream of water, described in Psalm 1.
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. (Psalm 1:1-4)
There is no more compelling image of Christian virtue than this. By making the hard choices to reject ungodly thoughts, sinful actions, and hurtful words, and choosing instead to be immersed in God’s Word, the Lord’s promise is one of blessing. Metaphorically, the promise is that of prospering like a tree that is deeply rooted near a stream of water. This type of life is not automatic, it requires a decision to live a life of virtue. But once resolved to follow God’s word, a measurably better life will result. Not a life without trouble to be sure, but ultimately one with victory. I imagine a tree surviving searing droughts of summer and remaining verdant and fruitful while other trees are losing their leaves and dying. Storms may blow through and knock off the odd branch or two, but its trunk is supple and able to bend before great winds without breaking or being uprooted. Its “secret” is being firmly connected to the channel from which it draws life.
This I believe is what Jesus meant when he explained to the woman at the well that he is the source of living water. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) In much the same way that a vine channels water to its branches, the stream provides water to roots that are tapped into it.
Yes, the little stream that runs behind our house is a delight, the bushes and trees planted by its banks lovely, and the various birds and animals that drink of its waters a constant source of wonder and amusement. Yet on the high banks above our stream, we have a lawn that is dying. It is close to the stream, but not close enough – the soil is hard and the distance from the stream too great. There are times when I feel as dry and withered as my lawn – tired, beat down, depressed. When I do, I find that reflecting on a tree rooted near a stream is a powerful image of hope and strength that encourages me to hold close to the source of living water.
And what a joy to know that by staying rooted in Christ, one day the metaphor of the tree will become reality when beholding the new heaven and new earth, as revealed to John.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. (Rev 22:1-2)
What keeps you rooted in the Lord?