The New River flows through the mountainous state of West Virginia in the US. It is a very interesting river. Earth scientists tell us it is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world. It predates the Appalachian Mountains around it. It is a scenic, shallow river with rock sticking up out of the water for much of its length.
For several years my work took me often to Washington, DC. Sometimes I took the train. I love to ride trains, and I especially loved the route from Ashland, Kentucky to Washington, DC. Much of it follows the New River through the Appalachian Mountains. I have never tired of watching the water flow. In the winter, sometimes the river appeared frozen. At other times it would flood, covering the rocks. Then the New River looked like any other river. But then, the next time I rode the train, there it was, water flowing around its rocks, just as it has flowed for millions of years.
There is something very comforting to me about rocks in the river. They represent solidity, even as the world around them whirls, swirls, floods, freezes, and flows. The Scripture readings for today are readings which say “Trust in the Lord forever!” Isaiah says it just that way. He is speaking to people who are heading into exile. While they did not have constant news on phone and TV to keep them agitated, they knew the world around them was whirling, swirling, soon to flood and freeze.
Isaiah seeks to give them faith and courage. “Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal Rock. He humbles those in high places, and the lofty city he brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust. It is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor.” This does not sound comforting, but the people were about to be the needy. Their footsteps would walk to Babylon. Yet God is saying, “Trust in the Lord,” and he will eventually bring them back and give them victory. The Lord is the Rock that can be trusted to endure the waters of politics around it. Water moves. Rocks do not. Trust in the Rock of God.
The Gospel today comes from early in Matthew. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gives a different image of rock. Here he tells those who listen to “ACT” on what they hear. “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and ACTS on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.”
This is very interesting. Jesus did not say, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and BELIEVES them correctly will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” He did not say, “Everyone who listens to my words and FEELS them with joy in their hearts will be like the wise man….” He did not say, “Everyone who listens to my words and AGREES with them….”
Jesus said, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and ACTS on them” will be like a rock in the river of life.
ACT means to DO. Take action.
Thinking of that in prayer leads me to a memory from 1975. It was a moment of conversion.
It was a very quiet moment of conversion for me. Yet I remember it more than 40 years later. I remember exactly where I was sitting at mass. We were singing “Whatsoever You Do”—a song popular in American churches in the 1970s that named off the situations described in the Last Judgment of Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was sick or in prison and you visited me.”
I was a relatively new Catholic in those days—and very happy. I had it all: not long married, in a beautiful new house with a husband I adored, teaching in a school nearby, farming vegetables, with a good income and no serious problems, a faith that was comfortable and pleasant. Life was good!
But that Sunday as we sang “Whatsoever You Do” I realized that I did NONE of those things in the song. I had no contact with anyone who was hungry, lonely, thirsty, homeless, or in prison. They weren’t in my world.
In that moment I saw a glimpse of the Face of God and realized that my faith world depended on everything in it being good. While earlier in my life I had been very much involved with the poor, the disenfranchised, the neglected–all those Jesus described as himself–that was not true at that time. I didn’t need a rock in the river because the waters of my life flowed smoothly in the sunshine. Sand would do. It made for smooth sailing.
But I must have said a prayer in that moment that reached up to touch God’s heart. I must have deep within me said, “Lord, help me to see what you see. Help me see you in those around me. Help me be willing to share of my bounty.” I don’t remember saying it, but I have learned through the years that my heart tends to bow to God without words at times when it is really important.
Soon I began to see with new eyes. The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned—they were in my world. They were within the children within my room at school. They were my grandmother sitting alone. They were among my friends.
God started there and began to change my heart.
I began to ACT on Jesus words.
In time, because that is how life is, the smooth waters of my life grew troubled. They swirled and whirled around me. What held firm? The habits I had begun to develop of seeing the needs of others and ACTING on what I saw. It got me out of myself. God is still working hard on me. I still need a push now and again to get out of myself.
Many spiritual writers suggest that at times of dry prayer one should put the focus of love of God into doing things for others. I can tell you, it doesn’t cure spiritual dryness, but it holds you fast to God—it acts like a rock in the river. It is enough to keep you faithful. If you let go of it—you can lose faith, lose relationship with God.
That is to lose everything. Maybe it isn’t just that we have to ACT in order to LIVE faith. Maybe the action is the way that God gives us to make our commitment a rock in the river, just as He is the Rock that made the river.
Lord, be my Rock in the river. Help me build my faith and my life on solid trust in You that is expressed in what I do. Help me to remember that when life is tough, is whirling and swirling, maybe flooding around me, I can come to You and ACT. That ACT might be a prayer. It might be a Work of Mercy. It might be just fulfilling the daily responsibilities of my life right now. But when I ACT—even with an Act of Faith—in a way that follows what You teach, I am clinging to You, Lord. I am claiming You as my Rock.
And You will never let me down. As the Psalm today concludes, “The Lord is God, and he has given us light.” Amen.