Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the Boatman’s Lap

This week, the Rappahannock was out of its banks again. Several days of rain, preceded by warmer temperatures that melted off the remaining snow patches, filled the streams, lakes and rivers to overflowing. From my favorite vantage point of Ingleside Drive, I looked back down at the curve of the river. The tidal currents pulled the water in violent splashes over the boulders, making actual whitecaps and reminding me of a painting I have hanging in my office. To be accurate, it is a print of a painting; the original, I am told, hangs in an old mansion in Nashville, Tennessee, that has been converted to a museum. The title of the painting is “Boatman and Child” and was painted by an artist named Robert Payton Reid.

As you would infer from the title, the picture is of a man dressed in rain gear, a 19th Century version of a slicker like garment, probably oilskin, and a rain hat. It is apparent from the front left periphery that he is in a sailboat, and the water is white-capped. The Boatman also wears a countenance speaking of determined control; his left hand is firmly grasping the rudder and the other encircles a little girl as his hand grasps the rope line of the sail. In addition to the dark traditional dress and coat of the period, the little girl is wearing a plain, white cap that fits closely to her head and is tied underneath her chin. Her little hands are pressed, palms together, and brought up to cushion her head against the Boatman’s chest. The expression on her little face indicates she is frightened, but it also conveys trust. She is huddled against him, taking both shelter and rest as the storm’s waves rock the boat.

One is struck by it. The colors in the piece are shades of browns and grays, adding to the somber mood of the scenario, yet it does not convey an entirely gloomy feeling. In fact, whenever I look at it, I am drawn in by its calm, and by how I identify with that little girl; safe in the arms of her protector - - perhaps her father or grandfather - - while being tossed about by the menacing combination of wind and waves. She is calm and settling to rest in the comforting power embodied in the Boatman.

I tell people that the print is my faith statement, and to some extent, it is. On those occasions when I feel that my little corner of the world is disintegrating all around me, I can look at that picture and rest secure in the knowledge that God has the world under His control. It also reminds me of the physical sensation in centering prayer. That “resting in God” is physically akin to the relaxed and trusting serenity of a child climbing into the lap of a loving grandfather, and simply leaning against his chest. Words are unnecessary. While there is not a serious resemblance between the two, the Boatman reminds me a little bit of my own maternal grandfather. Not that I spent all that much time sitting in his lap, although I’m sure I did here and there, but more that I loved and trusted him almost more than anyone else in my childhood.

As I write this, we Americans are watching as our federal government is grappling with many topics in legislature that will have major impacts on our population. There has been unusual harshness between the two major political parties in the past few years and the rancor with which the business of legislating is being done has been unprecedented. Or maybe it’s the press coverage of the verbal sniping that is unprecedented. I’m not certain. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is also poised to debate and make landmark decisions for the denomination. Each needs our prayers; and we could all probably also use some time in the Boatman’s lap as he steers the vessel to safety.

So, select a quieting word or phrase to signal to Him your intent, sit comfortably, with all distractions off or at least in silent mode. Now, close your eyes, take a deep breath and let it out very slowly, thinking gently of your special sacred word or phrase. Breath in again. And again.

May you know the peace that comes from letting it all go, and resting in the love and presence of God through His Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Today was not a lot of fun. Everyone has those days from time to time, and today was one for me. I’ve been in pain all day, and work events could have fallen together more smoothly than they did. Still, as my Forester climbed the bluff on Ingleside Drive, I managed to quickly sneak a glance down at the river below. It is swollen from the melted run-off from all the snow, and it was drizzling, too. The currents strong, the extra water rushed along, splashing against the huge boulders and bubbling over the smaller rocks hidden beneath the surface.

Suddenly, I was transported back in my memory to a time almost thirty-four years ago in June, when I joined a group from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Tennessee for an afternoon of “tubing” in one of the rivers up in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee, just an hour or so east of Knoxville. I had heard others talk about how much fun it was, but had never done it myself. All I was told was to wear my swimsuit under cut-off jean shorts and T-shirt, bring a couple of towels, Band-Aids, and to definitely wear sneakers. So, appropriately attired and adequately warned about the icy temperatures of the water, off we went. Once at the river, I was instructed that I would need to sit across the inner tube, as opposed to down in it. There were other instructions - - forgotten as soon as inner tubes with their assigned bodies slapped down onto the water and pushed away from the banks. We started our descent from just below Cades Cove, moving downward toward the placid pool that awaited us further down. It wasn’t long before I discovered the reasons for the instruction to sit across rather than down in the middle of the inner tube. The downward rush of the water propelled the tubes on varying speeds over, around, into and occasionally over some rather large boulders. Sometimes, one could get lucky and get a hand or a foot in position to push off of the boulder, rather than crashing into it. Once in a while, you’d just get stuck on a rock. More than likely, however, contact between boulders, vulnerable rear ends and the backs of thighs would result in marks of the encounters for a week or so thereafter!

Among the other dangers of this little trip were these little eddies created in the spaces between boulders where the water would pool and spin against itself. When these are large enough and in larger volumes of water, they’re called whirlpools. Of course, I fell off my inner tube just where one had formed, got sucked under, and ended up needing to be pulled out of the water by some of my friends. This marked the second water related near-death experience in my life. Once safely on solid, dry land and still shaken by the whole thing, I looked back at the inner tube, speedily spinning where I had been separated from it only a moment before. My friends were able to retrieve it from the water and I carried it up the hill to the waiting van; it and I were done for the day, never to meet again. I stuck to hiking in the Smokies from that point forward!

Rivers rushing along their courses to the sea, splashing over and around the rocks are hypnotic and beautiful. They sparkle and shimmer whether in sun or moon light, occasionally rushing loudly enough to disguise the sounds of the American version of the Lorelei that entice one to ride along only to be dashed against the hidden perils or pulled under to perform an eternity of underwater somersaults. I’m an old pro with these, turning over and over under the water, seeing the light that marks the surface, but never quite able to reach up to it or get one’s head above it or one’s feet on the bottom. Perhaps it’s the danger that intrigues us, motivating us to hop aboard that ship (or inner tube) instead of allowing it to just float on by.

As I mentioned in my previous missive, the river flowing along beside us in our prayers is analogous to our stream of consciousness. When we go to God in our centering prayer, we are saying to him that we accept the invitation to be in His presence. We are saying that we will try to remain as quiet as we can so we might experience him in the stillness. I can tell you from experience that the stream can be as welcoming as that first dive into the pool on a sticky August day in the mid South. After all, the initial sessions of centering prayer function in ways similar to a psychological spring house-cleaning and fumigation. Who wouldn’t rather go for a motorboat ride or a quiet, yet invigorating sail?

One of my more favorite memories of Charleston, South Carolina, in the months I lived there prior to meeting my husband, was an afternoon of sailing on a beautiful, windy afternoon in November. I had my camera, and wanted to take photographs of the City from the Harbor. So, leaning against the mast and looping my arm around it for balance, I did snap some pictures, but soon abandoned the photography for the pure thrill of the sail. The wind whipped the sails back and forth – ditto with my hair -- and the vessel was slightly tossed about on the choppy surface. Here and there, salt water would be slung up in a spray by the wind. The sun’s rays were warm on my back, balancing the chill of the air. In those few moments, for it seemed as if the entire afternoon only lasted an hour or so, I think I felt more alive, more present in the moment, and closer to God than I had felt in a long time. The elemental power of the wind, the fiery energy of the sun, the being away from the solidity and nurture of terra firma, and on the water, medium for the most delicate of sea creatures, yet a liquid cemetery for all non-gilled and non-swimming creatures all came together in those fleeting moments, and I wondered how could one experience this confluence of nature and deny the omnipotent, unmitigated glory of its Creator? What was I that He cared enough about me to allow me to be a witness to it?

We are awakened into these revelations by the grace of God. He puts into us the desire to be with him; the yearning for spiritual nurturing through Bible study and the longing to seek and find Him in all the created order. We don’t do this of our own accord; He provides the impetus, and if we’re astute enough to understand it, we are given the freedom to act in imitation of His life and ministry embodied in Jesus Christ, His only Begotten Son. May the Grace and Peace of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit be with you, now and always.