God reaches out and speaks in the most unlikely of places
God, bourbon and psalms on a steamy hot evening along the Indiana side of the Ohio River ten miles downstream from Louisville, Kentucky. Humidity so high you need gills to breathe. Sweat oozing from every pore. That angry ol’ sun has finally dipped behind the hills, and now the haze is beginning to fall all fat and sassy on the mighty muddy water.
The Ohio River! That powerful muscle of water that slices Indiana and Kentucky in two. Brown gurgling water nearly a mile wide where I’m standing. A mother to barges and mystery and dreams. “Let the rivers clap their hands! says Psalm 98:8. This river complies with the Lord!
And desolate. You want desolation? Drive where I am standing right now: Indiana Highway 111 south. South of the Highway 211 cut-off is sheer isolation. Hardly a house for miles and miles. The river will be on your left as you drive south. Curtains of trees hide that glorious water, but then wham! A clearing in the trees! The river flashes into view, and the sight is at once mysterious and powerful.
Don’t you see? That’s God speaking! Where no one is, where no one wants to be, where this wonderful water rolls by unobserved, there God dwells. I, along the river bank, and that eagle that drifts high above are the only ones to see it.
“O Lord, how short is the length of my days. Now I know how fleeting is my life” (Ps 39:5). God in his mercy, however, has blest me. How blest I am to see what I see! How blest I am to be so deep in a land that I am hidden from all view save God’s. It is as if God has enveloped me in his arms and is holding me close to his bosom. A land no one wants. A land city-folk mock and deride. But a land teeming with angels and the footprint of God.
My lungs fill with the odor of water and mud and sweat and dew. I sit down in it, because I must feel it. And all the while the water rolls by silently. I watch it. I hear nothing except the occasional screech of that eagle that sails above. This river doesn’t boast. It doesn’t need to. This river is confident, because this river is doing the will of God. All I can do is accept what I see and be thankful to God who gave me the opportunity to see it and revel in it. What does the Prophet Daniel say? “Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord” (Dn 3:43). If this river isn’t wondrous, my name is Burl Grundy. If I’m not being delivered by experiencing this wonder, then damned I am.
The glory is in the simplicity: a river, an eagle, silence. That’s it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux got it right back in the twelfth century when he wrote in his commentary on the Song of Songs: “Be simple with your Lord, putting away not only all guile and simulation, but equally all multiplicity of occupation, so that you may converse freely with him whose voice is so sweet and face so comely” This river harbors no guile.
Real presence? You want to talk real presence? I defy anyone to say God is not walking here. “The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and trembled” (Ps 77:17) and “It stretched out its branches to the sea, to the Great River it stretched out its shoots” (Ps 80:12).
Here I taste God as assuredly as I taste the Eucharist. I may not be in church, but I am with God here on this water. I shout with joy and praise that God has touched me, that God has allowed me to savor his sweetness. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:9).
Downstream I see it: a barge, three wide. At first it’s only a speck on the water. Slowly, it lumbers forth; silent and stealthy. The barge is hugging the Indiana side of the river; already anticipating the approach to the locks on the Kentucky side of the river upriver at Louisville. Finally, the barge is opposite me. I wave and let out a holler. The barge blasts its horn in reply. For several minutes I watch it chug its way upstream wondering what is its destination.
My destination is God’s face. But as that barge drifts out of sight into the haze of a hot humid night, I ask myself: will I see God’s face? Or will I obscure God’s face with the haze of sin?
I was born on the banks of this river sixty years ago. In my time I have been blest to dive into the depths of the Almighty, and in my sinfulness God has cleansed me in the waters of baptism, which, to me, is this river of God.
Twelve-year old bourbon tastes mighty good on nights like these.