The River: a Metaphor

I have never had a “vision”.

Never—if you think a “vision” means one must actually see something appear visually in time and space before the eyes.

Being of a literary background, I do often envision—through metaphor, simile and imagery—thoughts and ideas about Christ and His Kingdom. Sometimes, puzzled, I find my metaphors to be as “mixed” as those Paul used when he sought to convey a vision to the churches he had planted. I would like to share an “envisioning” that has visited me of late. Perhaps you will share your thoughts as well.

Glimpse with me a bird’s-eye view of the River. Scattered along its banks, stand individuals or small groups of people. Around the next bend, a crowd has gathered. Such people, groups or crowds are found all along the course of the River as it flows to the sea.

Occasionally we see someone wading in the River or sitting with their feet in the water. We wonder if they will swim or walk away from the River. Time will tell.

Upon the River, many rafts make their way downstream, occupied by people shouting authoritatively to the people on the riverbank. Sometimes a few people jump into the River and swim out to join those on the rafts. The rafts are constructed of logs with “doctrine” carved deeply into the wood, and the letters of “doctrine” are as varied as the persons who constructed the rafts. Many of these rafts overturn in turbulent stretches of the River or run aground on sandbars. Some of the rafts seem to be at war with one another.

Our bird’s-eye view shifts to a new perspective as we perch on a tree branch. We survey a great bend in the river. Here, the river widens into a calm but steadily-flowing expanse. There is room for canoes, rowboats and motorboats on the River. A few solitary River-lovers paddle in kayaks here and there, each one to himself. They are go-it-alone people with little or no relationship to the other River-lovers. They will paddle all day, but won’t go very far. They will get wet, and some will know the thrill of danger, but they won’t share the one of richest experiences the River offers—the company of fellow-travelers. If they find themselves in trouble, they will also find themselves alone, in need of rescue.

Two or three paddle in a canoe. They talk about the River and share the River together. Unlike the solitary, they have companions with whom to share their love and adoration of the River. The River is truly “with” them, and most of them will avoid the hazards of a longjourney by looking out for one another. They call out to the other craft that travel the River and listen to the voices that call back. More often than not, the conversation is about how great the River is and a common love for the River inhabits their cries. Each canoe puts in to shore for the night. They will never travel far from their campsite. The sea is miles downstream, and their craft too frail for the deeper waters.

Lone rowers in rowboats and rowers in teams travel the River. Some row upstream, straining against the oars, while others go with the flow. So much effort attends each rowboat. They will be tired and overwhelmed at the end of each effort-filled day, collapsing with a sigh, “Well, it’s all about the River. We didn’t make much progress, but we’ll do it again tomorrow. If all those rafts would get off the river, we could get the job done.” Often the rowers trade their small boats for larger boats of the same design, and pray very hard that more rowers will come to share the work.

Motorboats skim the River, circling rafts, kayaks, canoes and rowboats trailing a roar and a wake. Some of them pull skiers whose antics fill the stunned gazes of those who watch from the shore and inspire an ambition to join the show. They are the entertainers, the brash, clamoring attention-getters of the River. The pilots of these craft know the River. They know the rapids and the calm broad expanse. They know all about the River and many trust their experience of it to these capable navigators.  Most of the passengers don’t even wear life-jackets! Such is their confidence in the man driving the boat! But always, always, these people are up on the surface. They will admit their boats rely upon the refueling stations where contemplation and sustenance is their supply and their necessity. They rely on the boat’s driver to procure those essentials for them. Still, they race past multitudes, insufficient for the needs that cry out from the shore, “Take us with you!” We can see, from our tree branch, a certain truth. No matter how large a motorboat is, it has a maximum capacity and the more it carries the more fuel it consumes. Sooner or later, each boat’s requirements outstrip its supply and it finds itself dead in the water, praying someone will bring along a can of gas.

A steamboat rounds the bend and we see decks teaming with smiling passengers. Across the bow, in proud and jubilant letters, the boat wears her name: The Prosperity Queen. Many of the passengers paid a handsome price for their tickets. She has many sister ships, and as they all drift in fanfare and majesty down the river, voices cry from the shore, “Take us with you!” The passengers look like they are enjoying an effortless cruise on the River. Whenever a steamboat puts in to shore many climb aboard. A few quietly disembark, for they have discovered what the other passengers have yet to learn: packed in their steamer trunks are the abandoned challenges they have not faced squarely and the wrinkled hopes they will later unpack—the substance of which was a me-centered message the agent at the ticket office supplied in a neat brochure entitled Life Is So Easy on the River. Reminders of omission tucked away under delusions of favor will be lifted from their baggage in some future moment of regret.  Their common lot: the realization that the hardest parts of the River journey are the stretches the steamboats avoid, and are also the expressions of the River’s greatest power. None of the passengers on these glorious vessels foresee the sandbars up ahead. If the captain knows the sandbar is there, he will abandon the boat, the crew and the passengers long before they run aground.

If you have read two of my previous posts (here and here), you may wonder at this point whether I have forgotten the sailboats. No.  You and I are making way with wind in our sails. This River is carrying us to those deeper waters. We have found our courage to embark and we are learning the faith required to go where our risen Lord will send us.  But there is more to envision beyond our personal journey on the River.  The River is teeming with others like us. How shall we, then, experience it together?

There will come a day when He invites you, like Peter, to step out of the boat. You may walk hand in hand with Him above stormy waves or a placid surface. Always, He offers the River as your stream of Living Water. It is the water of baptism that signifies joining Him in death and resurrection—the old passing away so the new can be born. Envision one person jumping into the River! “Come on in, the Water is…indescribable!” And let your vision expand to encompass thirsty multitudes rushing to dive in. You might be the first person who takes the leap of faith along your stretch of the River!

The River is deep, and steadily flowing. He invites you now to dive in. When you do, you will find once again, what it means to be in two places at the same time. Immersed in the River, you will be in total dependence upon Him—and able to carry streams of Living Water ashore to the thirsting individuals, groups and crowds among whom you are sent. And they will seek the River for themselves! Even into the most arid desert you may go, sustained by access to the River. As water gushed from the rock in the Wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20), so it will be for you!  He desires for you to plunge deeply into the River and swim joyously with all the other fish—in reckless abandonment and total dependence—bound for the sea of Divine, unending Life!


I invite you to share your thoughts, metaphors, and images by leaving a comment on this post.


  1. Leah, That was terrific. Also terrifyingly complete, I think you covered every type of Christ follower out there. The terrifying part was how few were reaching out to those on shore to bring them into the boat – rather they seemed to think the best they could do was to encourage the shore dwellers to jump into the river and come to the boat. But, as you pointed out, it is those willing to take the chance to walk on the water who can bring the lost safely into God’s house(boat). May more of us take the dangerous route of sharing ourselves and our hope with those who need it most.
    Thanks, Jan

    • Thank you, Jan. I truly hope more of us will DIVE INTO the RIVER, and I’ll be connecting with that tomorrow. Some one has been praying for me because I found a boldness to put my steel toed boots back on to write for tomorrow (see earlier post, Stepping on the Toes of Performance-based Religion). I hope whoever stands before the throne of grace for me today will be doing it when tomorrow’s (and subsequent posts) comes online, because I’m going to have to pay a cost. Back to the cross, into the River…let “me” die.

  2. Jeanne Schlumbohm says:

    Hi Leah,
    Incredible metaphor of the IC. Many people enjoying the river but clueless about it’s depth. How long will those who ply the river’s eddies and currents enjoy it in a superficial way without ever experiencing it’s fullness or it’s refreshing. Just happily boating along satisfied to be on the river and never experiencing all that is available.
    Thank so much for sharing your “envisioning” of the current state and I say lets DIVE IN.

    • Jeanne, there is still so much more in that “envisioning”. The people going it alone can be individuals AND even small house churches playing “church” with the same model as the IC! And the people on shore don’t necessarily represent “lost”. Some of them can be River people who haven’t been taught how they can drink from the River and even LIVE in it—HIM! And after Jan’s comment earlier today, I see how the people ON the river can represent the few who keep the IC running and the ones on the riverbanks are the passive who sit up to watch the show from the pews! LOL Abba is good to us, is He not? Oh yes, I think we will find ourselves taking another look at this metaphor around midweek. (I guess you are home now. Hoping to see you soon! When the next Citywide rolls around maybe?)

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