Our guide shouted, “Don’t push the river!” I was white-water rafting (poorly) down the Amazon. With the raft swirling and the water splashing, the guide’s command made about as much sense as choosing what you are supposed to do with your life at eighteen years old. I remember thinking, “That’s dumb. How can anyone push a river?”
A year later, I picked up Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs. To my surprise, he has a chapter called "Don't Push the River." Turns out my river guide knew more about life and vocation than my ears could hear.
According to Rohr (and my river guide), “don’t push the river” is exactly what it sounds like. If you push against the current, you will lose.
In other words, for those of us trying to make something of ourselves, we think we need to go upstream. We think we can stand out by accomplishing tasks and winning awards. We interpret our successes to mean we are worthy, we are important, we belong to God.
It is hard to keep this pace, though. We are always fighting our past, fighting our fears, and fighting the odds. We push against the river’s current hoping to break free, to emerge as someone who has arrived, but we are getting it wrong.
Success and notoriety may be found momentarily in an attempt to move upstream, but the only people who care are the ones floating by. Vocation is not found in pushing the river. Life does not work that way. We end up losing faith, energy, and hope.
The irony Rohr helps paint is that the river of life is built so we do not have to fight it to find our place in it. The river is here to carry us. The river washes us clean. The river allows us to attach our rafts to others as we travel along the way.
Revelation 22:1 says, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God.” (NRSV)
The river takes us to God. The river helps us become more of who we really are. The river is the life force that holds all things and sustains all things, and we fight it thinking this is how we become more like who we are meant to be.
Whether we know it or not, pushing the river rejects the gift God has given us to feel alive and free. If we want to find ourselves, if we want to experience depth and purpose, if we want to claim our life’s vocation, then we must stop pushing the river and start enjoying where life’s current takes us.
The river can show us unbelievable things. We will meet others seeing these same things. We will discover a sense of awe and wonder. We will learn how to truly be thankful and grateful when we worship, for we will see life as it is meant to be seen.
Think about it. Worship is where we thank, praise, and glorify the One who shows us what is downstream. If we are fighting to hold our ground, what exactly are we worshipping God for?
Plus, life is not found upstream. Jesus tells us we only find life when we are ready to lose it. We can paraphrase him saying, “We’ll find life when we’re willing to let the river take us.”
Maybe my river guide was thinking about all of this when he yelled at me to do better, or maybe he was not; but, it is now one of life’s most important lessons for me. I want to be taken to where God is. I want to experience authentic worship. I want others to feel the joy of the river of life.
So, don’t push the river; raft it.
Rev. J. Barrett Owen is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro.