A River Runs There
by Timothy J. Mooney
It is said a great Zen teacher asked an initiate to sit by a stream until he heard all the water had to teach. After days of bending his mind around the scene, a small monkey happened by, and, in one seeming bound of joy, splashed about in the stream. The initiate wept and returned to his teacher, who scolded him lovingly, “The monkey heard. You just listened.”
The Hebrew word “shema” in English is translated as “obey,” but it means: “to hear.” But it’s more than that. It’s to know, sense, on such a deep level that it leads to change and action; the knowing becomes a being and a doing. It is not a call to blindly do what God says. What we are invited to do is pay attention, to hear the truth, the life, the depth of something so well, that we cannot but respond in a positive way with our words, attitude, deeds, heart, our very life. It is akin to when we say, “Oh, I see!” It’s not just that we simply see it with our eyes. It’s that we get it at a deep level, we know it in our soul, and it becomes integrated into our life. Or at least it begins to be integrated.
Twenty years ago I was hiking in a State Park near Santa Cruz, CA, and I’ll be honest with you – I lost the trail. I headed in a direction that I thought would take me back to the trail, when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a grove of giant Sequoias. I saw them, and then I truly saw them. I had an experience of profound oneness with this beauty, all of creation, and God’s presence – a mystical knowing of oneness with all things. I was physically lost, but I was so completely found! And since that moment I have tried to integrate that knowing with how I live in the world.
Jesus criticized the Sadducees because they lacked this kind of hearing, this kind of knowledge of the Scriptures, of the spiritual life, of God. They did not know the scriptures, or God, in a living, experiential way. As Jesus pointed out, God is the God of life, the God of the living.
But you and me, we have trouble sometimes with this thing called “living”. We often find ourselves observing, watching, thinking about life, instead of actually living it. And with the internet and cell phones, it’s so easy to observe, watch life and the life of others on our little screens, and forget to truly live. We are more like the initiate who listened to the water, than the monkey who heard what the water had to say.
Just after college I traveled to Puerto Rico with a few friends, one of whom, named Vivian, lived there and wanted to show us the beauty of her homeland. She took us to the top of the highest mountain in Puerto Rico, but as we approached the clouds grew thicker and as we pulled into the parking lot at the top, it started to rain like crazy. We were all bummed out, and we just sat there in the car waiting it out. Suddenly Vivian’s body language changed, and she turned around, looked at us, then jumped out of the car. She was soaked in seconds, and started splashing around in the inch or so of water in the parking lot. She looked at us and said: “It’s only water!” With that, we all jumped out of the car, were soaked to the bone, and I had one of the most joyful experiences of my life!
It has taken me a long time to learn that lesson: Get out into life. And I’m still learning it!
I have been an observer most of my life. We were taught early in the Mooney family system to be hyper-aware of what other people thought of us. We were trained to be what other people needed us to be. It even showed up in the way I played sports. I would watch how the other person was guarding me and then I’d adjust my game.
What stream have we been watching, and what might it mean to get in it and know the stream? We might get wet. We might be filled with joy, with life.
After college I worked for Anderson College, and had the opportunity to work in 3 different local churches! I had been raised in the Church of God and it seemed my life was set before me. I was dating a woman with a beautiful voice – people thought we’d be the perfect clergy couple! But my soul knew there was more to life and faith than I was getting in my tradition. The Dean of Students, a wise woman, offered me this advice: “Tim, many people around here have a vested interest in what you’re doing. Make sure you listen for that still small voice in here,” and she pointed to my heart. And in that moment that is still so clear to me, I chose to leave my tradition and go to Princeton Theological Seminary. It was a big leap of faith. I was beginning to “hear” and respond, instead of watch and react. Things were shifting for me. And it showed up when we would play basketball in the afternoons at Princeton Theological Seminary. I began to be more assertive, to play to my strengths, to go for the play I wanted. I was more fully participating, rather than watching. And I began to live my life more than watch it; to dive into the flow of life, and the life of those around me. My life was messier, but it was so much richer, truth-filled, and joyful.
Richard Rohr speaks of the Trinity as a flow of love, and all of creation is part of that flow, and we are invited to join in with that flow, to experience and know the deep connection with all things. The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John are powerful. Abide in me. In other words, we are already there, dive in! Choose to be a part of the flow and let God’s life course in us, as us.
Maybe twenty years ago, I had a dream. I was with five friends from seminary in a great room at a beach resort. We could see the ocean through the large windows. Suddenly the place started to shake and there was a loud roar. And through the windows I saw, coming our way, huge tsunami waves. The whole room was filled with fear. But as the waves approach, I looked, and was shocked to see that there were surfers riding those waves, having the ride of their life! And suddenly my fear turned into courage, and my anxiety turned into anticipation. And my buddy Carter said, “It’s all about liquidity, dude,” and I knew exactly what he meant. We are invited to live out of our deepest God-given gifts and talents; this is the wave of our lives we are to ride.
Twenty years ago I started to work on big painting of a canyon scene – like the Grand Canyon. But it wasn’t coming together and I finally got so frustrated with it that I blotted out three-quarters of the bottom part of the canvas with red paint. And suddenly I saw something new. It wasn’t a deep canyon, it was a river running toward me, and there was a red canoe on the bank with a blue paddle in it, as if to say, “Get in and let’s get into the flow of the river, the flow of life.”
What rainstorm are we waiting out, that we might get into? What big wave approaches, that we might actually surf its energy and have the ride of our life? What canoe is waiting for you and me to get into, and set out on the river? Are you and I watching what is happening, or are we a part of life? What would it look like for you and I to dive in to the flow of life? What stream have we been watching, and what might it mean to get in it and know the stream? We might get wet. We might be filled with joy, with life.
Song: O River, by Tim Mooney
A river runs there, cool and deep,
Rising in the middle of the night.
Evoked in dreams, from out of my sleep,
Not at my beck and call, but it holds me tight.
A river runs there, dark and still,
Just beyond the reach of my touch.
I long for its life, and so I use all my will,
But its waters won’t flow until up against beauty I brush.
Chorus: This is gift, it always comes as gift,
When I’m fighting with myself and adrift.
Welling up in me, welling up in me,
O River, that sets me free.
A river runs there, just out of sight,
Roaring in this canyon wild and true.
When hope is gone, and dim is the light,
Be still and know it roars deep inside, and makes all things new. (Chorus)
It does not force its way, it flows patiently.
It makes no demands, it waits for you and me.
Love and freedom alone, it won’t settle for anything less.
Stand on the shore and watch, or dive in and say, “Yes!”
A river runs there, ancient and wise,
In its waters we live and move, and have our being.
It flows night and day, and it never runs dry,
When the shadow of death falls, it rises in us, a new beginning. (Chorus)