Water Power

An hour or so after a sudden afternoon thunderstorm, the creek was at full flow. Marooned on the little curved concrete span below the theater were tree branches: the water had been that high. Portions of the path beyond were mud-covered; much of the park grass had washed-up styrofoam, plastic, and odd paper. Under a car-bridge, one of the homeless was tucked into his dry niche, singing as I walked past. Ahead, I found the creek so high that it covered the path, so that gentleman had to see me twice.
    There is an old concrete dam—this is not much of a creek, so the dams are helpful in creating ponds. This one is, I guess, 15 feet high and 20 across. The last few feet of its width are lower, and it’s down that edge that one normally sees the water trickle over. But this evening water was pouring over the dam entire: the spray, the sound, the white splash, all spoke of a power that is normally unseen.
    It’s a little creek, named for a little hard-shelled creature, but my, what hidden energy was revealed. Eliot speaks of the river which is tamed by civilization and becomes only a problem for “the builder of bridges.” Nonetheless, the river remains “ever, however, implacable” with “seasons, and rages.” Its implacable power is a “reminder of what men choose to forget.”
    We may choose to forget it, but water is, in its first biblical instance, not our friend. Water is chaos; it has no form. God creates the firmament (the sky) to hold it up, and down below he pulls water back so that the dry land can emerge. But the water above can tear through the firmament and flood the land. And destructive tsunamis can bring ocean water back from its exile. We may choose to forget it, but the restraint of water is a work of divine providence, and a work ever provisional.
    These things are signs. Water symbolizes the destructive chaos that never goes away. This chaos is around us. It is around Israel throughout the Old Testament, the enemies, the Philistines and others, who are ever at Israel’s borders.
    But worse, water is the chaos that is within us. Waters of chaos are inside the human being, from which hidden place they break out from time to time in violence. The Bible shows us this with signs and with plain speech. Consider sacrifice of animals: it is just there in the Bible, not asked for by God (until Genesis 15), but done. Subsequently we find that the worship of God, laid out in such detail in (for instance) the book of Numbers, calls for a continual sacrifice of burning animals every day.
    I have learned from Robert Sacks to think of the sacrificial system as a concession that God makes to this violence in the human heart. Since this chaos exists within us, we need law to tame it, to regulate it, to limit it to particular places and times and means.
    The chaos breaks out in other ways: from one person being cruel to another, to violence in the streets, to ritualized combat. These are the waters with power that we try to forget, yet they are there, just like the power hidden in a little creek, waiting.
    On the other hand, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit. He tells the woman at the well that he has a water that could be within her and, there within her, spring up to eternal life. Jesus, that is, has a different kind of water. His water is the Spirit who will change our hearts, who will expunge the old chaotic waters and replace them with eternal life.
    Think of it. At the beginning, in Genesis, the Spirit hovered over the waters.
    In Jesus, God gives us the Spirit who is living water.



Children Are People Too

Perhaps I learned it from my wife. At any event, it was there as far back as I can remember: a conviction that it is wrong to speak of children as “the future of the church.” While it may be true that children will be important for the continuance of the church into the decades to come, that’s not why they are important now.
    They are important now because they are Christians, just like the rest of us.
    So when I became a rector, I started talking with people about the place of children in church. Our parish had a practice of Sunday school classes during church, with children coming upstairs to the church at the offertory and thus being in church for communion. My concerns about this practice were (and remain) several, but the main one was this: separating the children from church conveys the message that church worship is not for them.
    That strikes me as an error only an adult could make! Worship is an environment that is unlike anything else in the everyday experience of children—and of adults, too, but we are inured to its unusualness from habit. Just think of the “room” in which you worship: almost always, it is large. The ceiling is high. There may be candles and colored glass. It’s unlike almost every other space of our lives.
    And think what people do in church. They sing! We sing together hardly anywhere else in the world anymore. (And this is why we must figure out a way to return to singing as soon as possible.) We also stand up and say things together. Where else does that happen? Try to imagine what this room, this light, this space, this event, might mean to a one-year-old. Ponder the wonder of it to a three-year-old, or a five-year-old, a ten-year-old. A cross gets carried around. Sometimes everyone holds a candle. It’s dark; it’s light. It’s quiet; it’s loud. Everyone is hushed in prayer; everyone is standing and speaking loudly. Not to mention the walk to the altar, the Bread and the Wine.
    If children have to be able to explain things in words before we let them have the experience, well, let’s just pull the plug on baptism. (And should we institute eucharistic-literacy exams? Would you like to have to pass a test?)
    What we did at Resurrection in Hopewell Junction, New York, was move Sunday school to the time after Communion. I held off the sermon until then, at the end; at the same time the children were downstairs in classes. Earlier in the service, after the Gospel, where we are supposed to have a sermon, I had a children’s sermon. So our parish’s children were in church for the whole thing.
    We started this, first, as an experiment; I was aware of the possibility of a new rector inadvertently stepping on toes, and a wise parishioner said, “Try it as an experiment.” There were details (“bugs”) to work out, but it worked very well. One bug: I don’t like the name “children’s sermon,” for reasons you can probably figure out. So I called it, initially, “The Short Sermon.” After Communion, we had “The Long Sermon.” A friendly warden said to me, “Father, it might not be the most attractive thing to advertize you’re having a long sermon.” So I revised things and called that one, simply, “The Sermon.” The earlier one became “The Sermon for Short People.”
    When I first gave a children’s sermon at Incarnation, I greeted those who had come to the crossing: “Hello, short people!” One of them said (quite justifiably): “I’m not short!”
    Now I just say, “Hello, Christians.”
    I could go on for several thousand more words, but let me end with a thought about sickness and death. When I was seven years old, my sister was stillborn. My mother needed hospitalization and was not able to be at the funeral. My father brought my brother and me. He told me, many years later, that people questioned his doing so, asking whether it was good to bring young children to such a sad thing. But he was right. It was good to be there. (Today, his body lies besides hers in the town cemetery.)
    I have some younger adult friends who miscarried a baby. They told their other children, both of whom were under six years old. There was a service; the child was named; and they pray for her. In fact, my friends tell me, it is wonderful how they think of their brother. They rather like thinking of a brother who is in heaven. It is not, for them, a particularly sad thing; it’s just part of life, the wonderful mysteries of life.
    Of course, it really is sad, as we adults know. But the children, who take in reality more intuitively, are also right: it truly is a thing that has joy.
    I believe this, theologically: that a life of only a few months in the womb is as much and as real a human life as that of mine, a man who is old enough to get into grocery stores an hour early. Children are people too. Their lives are not in the future: they are right now.
    Thank God for this human life we share in Jesus Christ.



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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."