The Killing River lulls you to pebbled banks, interrogates your beliefs, confronts you with God, and gives you a peace of surrendering as it seals your life below the surface.
In the afternoon, the water of the Tennessee River reflects the habituated, beryl-blue sky. But as the sun sinks behind the mountains and unseats the sky’s inborn proclivities, cloud-touched rays assuage the water a gilded amber hue. And then, when the sun disappears to other lands, the pearly orbs lighting bridges and sidewalks, the distant red flares from cell towers, and incandescent lanterns of apartment buildings and late night office workers smear themselves across the surface of the river. There is an undeniable beauty on the banks of the Tennessee River and good reason to break out with contemporary hymn writer Al Green:
Take me to the river
And wash me down
Won't you cleanse my soul
Put my feet on the ground
But like the poet who writes about charming little birds, or the Christian who only speaks God’s glory, or the baseball fan who recites statistics, the beauty of the river camouflages its primal nature. For as soon as you are lulled into believing the shores of the river a place of worship and praise, a place of excitement and tranquility, the river will wolf you down whole, piercing and stabbing, mocking and crowing you the king of its banks. It will make you thirsty and you will try to resist its waters. As it takes your life it will peel the flesh from your bones, and flush your blood downstream – and after your death, your body and blood will traverse the rest of history through the river’s bends and turns, sinking lower and lower into the earth, until you are deposited into the eternal sea.
The river is a monster, a destroyer of persons, carving channels and holes in the planet like a gravedigger. And even with mustard-seed faith, we stand on the river’s banks and pray for the parting of waters, but the river will keep coming, coursing through hewed earth, preying for the right time to kill you. All the while, it sustains, nourishes, and gives you a cool drink of water.
A river can’t be stopped. We’ve tried. We’ve built dams and levees, thrown bags upon bags of sand around buildings. But nothing stops a river. It can be slowed, even diverted, but it will keep coming. Creation itself is ill-suited to stop a river. Dried up, the river summons the clouds. Frozen and the river brings an early spring. And if winter’s grip refuses to relent, the long solid slab of ice will glaciate downward, grading against our world with a grudge that scratches and cracks boulders into rocks – rolling the stone door of certainty away.
I was old enough to know something about death. But my understanding wasn’t the death of sickness, car crashes, or the natural course of life. The death I knew about was from snake bites, shark attacks, and water. Death was the consequence of the untamed world sneaking up on you and grabbing you from behind. It trolled and prowled around for the vulnerable, the weak, and the unguarded. And because the world was a dangerous place, everything was to be feared – strangers, the recluse neighbor who didn’t mow his lawn when he should, and the apples well-intending neighbors put in my trick-or-treat bag. But water was the scariest thing of all.
Throughout childhood we vacationed at Treasure Island, Florida. The drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee took two days. And like clockwork, the night before we crossed the bridge over Tampa Bay, my mother would have nightmares. She would wake us all with stories of cars toppling over the railings and sinking to the bottom of the bay, where sharks snacked on the drowning boys riding helplessly in the back of a station wagon – which actually did happen in 1980. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was struck by a freighter during a thunderstorm and thirty-five people fell to their deaths. (It is doubtful that they were eaten by sharks, but who can say?) And if that wasn’t enough, when we were fishing in the coastal waterway behind our hotel, my mother would say, “If you fall in that water, your daddy won’t be able to find you because it is so dark.” Then there was the story about the family of three boys so excited to be at the ocean. The children ran off from their parents, dove into the ocean, and washed ashore several days later with bite marks – all because they didn’t listen.
Water and death were twin brothers who loved each other dearly, and, like the wiles of a talking snake, water enticed children to their own death through a seemingly meaningless and harmless act of disobedience. “Come here, little children,” the killing river said to its victims. “Did Mommy and Daddy say, ‘Don’t swim in the river?’” And what child couldn’t help but listen to a talking river.
Along the banks of the Tennessee River, I thought maybe I heard the killing river whisper.
An early summer morning my family picnicked at the side of the water below the Chickamauga Dam. I was five, maybe six years old, and the dam was the largest constructed thing I’d ever seen. Pressurized spray gushed over the spillways and troubled the water. Swirls of current rolled and billowed, agitating the surface of the river with large circles of folding water. Enormous, red-lettered signs shouted words like “Warning,” and “Danger.” I was much too young to be able read the signs but I was old enough to know what foreboding felt like. And in my mother’s attempt to keep us safe, she told my brothers and me more stories of children drowning because they didn’t listen to their parents.
We ate ham sandwiches with cheese and mustard and drank Coca-Colas from glass bottles. We flicked ants off the picnic blanket and chased each other around a large grassy patch. Whenever we would run a little too close to the water, my mother would stand up and holler for us to, “Come back,” and “Get away from the water.” The entire day I could feel my mother’s fear of the river.
It only occurs to me now, decades later, my mother’s fear of the river was because she couldn’t swim. She knew better than any of us what helplessness was. The inability to save yourself. And that is the true call of the water. “You can’t do it yourself. You can’t win.”
Water breaks us down, removes the illusion of control. We are forced to surrender to its will, its current; we go where it takes us. “All waters,” writes Tertullian, “in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin…attain the sacramental power of sanctification.” Which is what I’ve been writing about all along.
The killing river is the waters of baptism sinking our own grandiose purpose, reminding us that death comes before life, and this death is not a bric-a-brac killing. It is complete killing – your body and soul are destroyed. Oh, how quick we are to celebrate that we are born again. But have we forgotten? Can we no longer remember? We’ve been victimized by the font?
We cannot swim in baptismal waters. We are submerged for three days and three nights and killed. Remember our baptism. Remember our death. And the river that killed us is “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”