From the Psalter:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 46:5 (BCP Version) – January 6, 2014.)

A River in the Desert

Two poems about rivers . . . first from the Malaysian poet John Tiong Chunghoo who is known best for his haiku, a work entitled Part of God:

created in his likeness
the anger – thunder
the warning – lightning
the tears – rain
the smile – the breeze
the punishment – earthquake
lesson – the echo, memory
the trees, birds,
sea, clouds and sky
his pictorial poetry
in his likeness
i paint them
with words
that run
like a river
reflecting their beauty in me
styling them in realism
on a calm day
on a breezy one
as the river
dances with light
when the river
shakes the
inquisitive mind
of the mysteries of life
all the blocks and angles
the river registers
as it unfolds a scroll
of god’s law
a river scene
i did to run away from
a mind that torments
a world that begs for
an answer to everything

I am intrigued by Chunghoo’s image of poetry as a river, of words as flowing water. I grew up in the desert of southern Nevada and, as an adult, enjoyed recreational backpacking down the valley of the Virgin River, a tributary of the Colorado that now makes up the northern branch of Lake Mead. In the desert, a river is a source of life. Around it the ground is parched, dry, and apparently lifeless, but immediately next to it and in it there is abundance of life. Words, Chunghoo seems to suggest, are like that; they are more than mere devices of communication — they are sources of life in a world that “begs for an answer to everything.”

That’s a biblical image! Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let there be . . . .'” John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word . . . . ” God’s words are life-giving. Human words can be, too! Communication sustains the life of community. The river of words makes glad the city.

The second poem, read together with Chunghoo’s, read in the light of the image of a river of communication, is an old hymn given new meaning:

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide for ever flowing
by the throne of God?
Gather at the river!
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes well gather at the river
that flows by the throne of God.
Shall we gather? Shall we gather at the river?

Shall we gather at the river of words? Shall we give life to one another with our communication and our conversation? Is there any other way?

Interestingly, Robert Lowry, the Baptist minister who wrote the hymn, was also a professor of literature. I wonder what he might have thought of a “river of words” . . . .


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.