• Chris Smith

Get in the River

It's funny how God uses disparate things happening in our lives to draw a consistent thru-line of his will. Or at least, I find it funny.

This past semester in my small group God has been teahcing me things about how to listen to him. It started with our first week in the Fourfold series where one of the questions we were asked to discuss was "in what ways have you been resisting or hindering the will of God through a lack of submission?" And much to my surprise (since I was the one who wrote the questions in the first place) I had an answer that bubbled up in my soul.

I needed to stop overthinking things.

What I meant (and mean) by that, is that I think I hear the voice of God nudging me to do things; to say things; to believe things, and I immediately go about the work of rationalizing it away in my brain. It's not that I don't want to obey, or that I am unwilling to follow where Jesus leads, but it's that I convince myself that those nudges--those voices--are not Jesus, but my own subconscious. I overthink that God says to me, and in the process talk myself out of it time and again.

As an aside, allowe me to say, friends, never undervalue the power of public confession, becasue as those words left my lips it was as if the Holy Spirit was given license to hound me about that at every opportunity.

So Jesus starts testing me on this commitment that I have now publicly made to him almost right away. I was a part of a national sub-committee from the Board of Directors that I didn't have to be a part of, and that I probably should have declined the invitation to, but I said "yes" becasue I ignored that voice in my gut and out of a sense of insecurity about missing out, and/or dissapointing people. Now that I had surfaced and confessed that character flaw Jesus wants to know what I am going to do about it. Every time I get an email from the committee chair I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because I know what I'm supposed to have done, but I haven't done it. But I start rationalizing:

It's been a couple months already...

I have responsibilities now...

They would have to find someone to replace me...

And for a few weeks I talk myself out of simple obedience again and again.

Then one night the spiritual dissonance becomes too much and I relent. I email the chair of the committee and resign. I'm embarassed. I've let people down. And I have no reason to give other than the truth--I wasn't supposed to say yes and now God is calling me back into obedience.

Have you ever tried to justify a decision with a line like that? It doesn't feel really good. In fact it feels like a cop-out. It feels like the type of thing someone would make up to justify laziness. I hated saying it. But it was the gospel truth.

After that Jesus didn't let up on me. I felt a peace in my spirit about obedience on one issue, but God wanted to stretch me more.

Get in the River

A couple of weeks later I was on a spiritual retreat as a part of a masters module I was taking at seminary. I was doing a retreat of solitude and silence at a church on the Seine River trail, and I decided to take advantage of a beautiful day and go for a walk. As I was walking down the trail that runs alongside the river I heard that voice again. That gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit that I had become so adept at rationalizing away. He told me to "get in the river."

Now this was easy for me to rationalize away. After all we had just started a new study in small group that week on Rob Reimer's book River Dwellers, in which the central metaphor for the book's thesis is to get in the river. Obviously my mind was just calling to attention the consonance between the lesson and my surroundings. But the voice wouldn't leave me alone. I walked on for another 5 minutes and the nudge wasn't letting up. I started talking back to God and asking him if this was HIS voice, and not mine--and all I got in response was the restatement of the original imperitive: "get in the river." In retrospect it was clear that God was more interested in getting me past my aversion to simple obedience than he was in explaining himself, so I eventually took the hint and made my way down to the edge of the frozen river and stepped out on the ice.

Now nothing amazing or miraculous happened when I did. The river was good and frozen so there was no risk in obeying the voice, and there was no epiphany that came when I started walking in obedience. I just walked. I walked for about a half an hour on the river. I walked almost all the way down to the perimiter highway when I decided that I had been gone long enough and should turn around and walk back. That was when I had the brilliant idea to get out of the river and walk back along the trail in order to vary my experience.

My idea was not good.

It was only a few steps out of the river and onto the riverbank when I realized that I had failed to notice how far the walking path was from the water's edge. That which had originally been running alongside the banks of the river had now diverged away from the water and was now a good 50 or so feet inland. As I struggled through knee-deep, thigh-deep, at times hip-deep snow, I kept falling over. I lost my balance and each step became more labourious than the last. I looked to the sky as if to say to God, "really? Is this how it's going to be?" And then as clear as day I heard that same voice say:

"I told you to get in the river."

"But God, I WAS in the river.

I walked almost all the way to the perimeter in the river.

Didn't I listen?"

"I told you to get in the river" was the only response I got back.

And so, reluctantly and ashamedly, I changed course, found a recently troded footbath back to the river's edge and got into the river. Again.

About ten minutes later as I walked the river back to the church I came across a bend. This was one of those pointless bends in the river that make you think that at some point in surveying and maintinaing creation that God got bored. It was a bend that needlessly went out and around and almost back in on itself before returning the river to its original course. There was no discernable purpose for this bend, no visible land formation that would warrant it (at least not visible when covered in snow), it was just there. And because of the strange shape it was exposed to the wind in a way that most of the river was not. And as I approached it the wind was howling. Along the way, the old tune kept playing through my head "'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus" and especially the refrain:

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him;

how I've proved him o'er and o'er.

Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus;

Oh, for grace to trust him more.

Over and over again I found myself singing it out loud as I walked. And when I came to that bend Jesus asked me to live it. The voice came back. "On your knees."

I found this command to be arresting. It caught me off-guard and I stopped pondering what I should do. But having experienced what I had already experienced and having heard those words from the song over and over again, I knew I needed to obey. So I got down on my knees. Immediately--eerily--the wind stopped and there was a holy hush all around me. I kneeled there for perhaps 20, maybe 30 seconds and then I heard something. The rustling sound of someone else on the path. I straightened up like an arrow. Not wanting to be caught by a stranger in this strange position. My heart was racing as looked around to see who it was, but there was no one there. No sound, except the sound of the wind picking up again. Confused and slightly disoriented by the experience I heard the voice again: "On your knees." This time I knew what to do.

I got on my knees again and just as before the wind stopped. And the holy hush returned. And for what was probably about 10 minutes this time I experienced communion with Jesus. He spoke to me. Things about myself, things about other people. Some things that were easily and immediately verifiable, some things to hold onto and wait to see what will come. But most importantly I felt Him. I felt the closeness of Jesus in a way that I hadn't experienced in a while. He reminded me of his love for me, and his affirmation warmed my heart on that cold March morning. This time when the moment was over and I finally stood up, there was no anxiety, no rebuke, just peace. And I knew that the moment had passed and I continued my walk back to the church/retreat centre where I had a chance to journal this experience.

Why have I shared this story with you?

I wanted to share this story because as we continue to prepare ourselves for Soul Care, and work through River Dwellers in our small groups, the question will naturally come up: "can I experience God like that in my own life?" There have already been some pretty amazing stories. Some of you have already heard or read things that make you skeptical, or perhaps disillusioned that your own relationship with God doesn't look like what you have read. I wanted to encourage you that even a remakably average person like me can experience God in the most ordinary of places. There was no earthquake, no fire, no writing on the wall, or message in the sky--but Jesus became real. All I had to do was to tune the ears of my heart to recognize his voice, and command my will to obey. He didn't ask a lot. But what I received in return was precious.

So my exhortation for you this week is to heed that voice. Get in the river. See where it flows. Obey Jesus in the simple and small things and see that he won't bless you with greater revelations of his love for you.

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