It happened to me last winter, while I was visiting family out of town and had the luxury to participate rather than lead worship for a change. This should be a good thing, right? It was a congregation of mostly young adults and young families. The music was just a little edgy and well-done (although I may be just a tad biased; one of my own family is in the band). I loved the play area for children in the back of the church, and the fact that after the first fifteen minutes of the service, there was a fellowship break with time for coffee before settling in for the sermon.
Then came the sermon, very long, and earnest, I remember, although, I will confess I don't remember much more about it any more. I do remember, however, an illustration about the difference between rivers and lakes, and how, in God's way of thinking, it is much better for us (as individuals) to be like a river than it is to be like a lake. Rivers are good; lakes are bad. Why? A river flows. It is healthy; it has a source and a destination. A lake just sits there.
In my mind I understood that this was a metaphor, and as a metaphor, I suppose it was just fine. He was trying to say that we too need to know our source, and be flowing toward a destination, rather than just sitting there, keeping it all to ourselves.
I kept thinking, he is being unfair to lakes. Lakes don't just sit there. If they are healthy, they also have an inlet and an outlet. Just because they are (often) deep and you can't seem the bottom, and just because you can't see them flowing, doesn't mean that they are just sitting there. Think about Lake Pepin, after all. Lake Pepin is a lake inside a river. The river flows into the lake and back out again. Or, think about the chain of lakes in my own hometown. There are four lakes that flow one from the other. They are not stagnant, although it is true that they are not so healthy any more. But that is not their fault.
I grew up loving lakes, although, like the young preacher, I didn't understand them. I loved the lakes in my city, and up north, where we would go to camp, and swim, and fish, and play. I didn't understand then where the water came from and where it went to. I didn't know that there were consequences for the lakes that more and more homes and businesses came near.
This spring I picked up a book by a retired college professor and ecologist, Darby Nelson. It is called For Love of Lakes. The book is part memoir, part geology, as he writes lyrically of his boyhood love of lakes, and yet exposes how many of them have become degraded. How can we say we love lakes, and let them fall to ruin?, he wonders. Is it because we don't understand them? In a lake, so much happens under the surface, where we cannot see.
Two paragraphs in his introduction struck me:
If I think of time as a river, I predispose myself to think linearly, to see events as unconnected, where a tree branch falling into the river at noon is swept away by current to remain eternally separated in time and space from the butterfly that falls in an hour later and thrashes about seeking floating refuge.
But if I think of time as a lake, I see ripples set in motion by one event touching an entire shore and then, when reflected back toward the middle, meeting ripples from other events, each changing the other in their passing. I think of connectedness, of relationships, and interacting events that matter greatly to lakes.
I don't know why I was so obstinate in my mind about this young preacher's river and lake analogy, why I couldn't just go where he was trying to take me. A lake is not a person, after all. He was not engaged in some sort of "Lake Profiling", or "Lake Stereotyping". I don't know if it was just that I am from a region famous for its lakes (although we have some awfully fine rivers too). Was I, perhaps unconsciously, aligning myself with a different sort of spirituality, one more in tune with lakes than with rivers, more inter-connected and interacting? Maybe I just worried that even a well-intentioned metaphor can contribute to misunderstanding, if it is not quite true. Perhaps I just think that some things, like lakes and rivers, are not 'either/or', but 'both/and.' Maybe I see a better, truer metaphor in the different kinds of waters.
Both lakes and rivers are good; they teach us different things. A lake can teach us how much of life lies beneath the surface; like the Spirit, we do not always know where it comes from, and where it is going, at least from close up. A river teaches us the movement, the dance that we can see, the journey.
I did not approach the pastor after the sermon to argue with his metaphor. And even though I disagreed, I'll grant that he made me think: there's something to be said for that.