You can actually step across the Mississippi River at its headwaters. It’s barely a trickle when it starts out in northern Minnesota. But just travel downstream and soon it becomes the proverbial “Mighty Mississippi.” What transforms the Mississippi River from something that’s shallow and narrow into something that’s “deep and wide” are its tributaries. On its 2,350 mile trek from the north woods of Minnesota to the sunny shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River picks up 15 tributaries. It’s the fact that the Illinois River, the Missouri River, the Ohio River, the Arkansas River, and the Red River – just to name a few – all join the Mississippi River at some point along its journey through the heartland of America, adding to its strength and volume, that makes it one of the largest and longest river systems in the world.
Thirty years ago when he saw the first signs of “a mighty river of the Spirit bursting forth from the hearts of men and women, boys and girls — a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples” (xv), the Quaker author Richard Foster wrote his book Streams of Living Water: The Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith and launched a movement for the intentional spiritual formation of Christians that tried to balance the different spiritual traditions of historic Christianity. Just like all of those tributaries flowing into the Mississippi River making it the greatest of American Rivers, so Richard Foster believed that all of the different streams of Christian spirituality needed to be combined.
The Contemplative Stream of the Prayer-Filled Life
The Holiness Stream of the Virtuous Life
The Charismatic Stream of the Spirit-Empowered Life
The Social Justice Stream of the Compassionate Life
The Evangelical Stream of the Word-Centered Life
The Incarnational Stream of the Sacramental Life
He believed that these six streams that for so long had flowed separately could combine to form a mighty “Mississippi of the Spirit.” This is clearly a Biblical idea. Psalm 1:1-3 describes the life of a believer who is planted beside the streams of living water to be both abundant and productive.
They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (1:3)
Our spiritual vitality depends on there being these streams of life-giving water flowing into our lives, and the whole point of the church’s annual season of Lent is for us to get deliberate and disciplined about positioning ourselves beside them so that we can grow spiritually. Now, I don’t know any Christians who won’t say that this is what they want, who won’t say that they want to grow spiritually. But this is where it becomes a matter of the proverbial “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” dilemma that we face all the time as a church. Take Lent seriously. Practice the spiritual disciplines. Be in church every Sunday for worship from now until Easter, and you’ll grow spiritually. I guarantee it. But the fact is that only a few of us will. This is always the case. But what a difference those few will experience, and what a difference they can make! Jesus even said so –
Those who drink of the living water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (4:14)
Eastern Orthodox Christians have a traditional saying – “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” What they mean by this is that when a person drinks the living water that is Christ, they will then, in turn, become channels of that same living water into the lives of the people they know and love. And this means that the Invitation to a Holy Lent is not just an invitation for us to get serious for a season about letting the streams of living water flow into our lives, it’s also an invitation for us to allow those streams of living water that are flowing into us, to also flow out of us to others, bringing Christ’s life, light, and love to them as well.
It’s a familiar illustration, but one that seems uniquely apropos for Ash Wednesday with its Invitation to a Holy Lent –
Within the borders of Israel there are two great seas – the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. These two bodies of water are connected by the Jordan River. Though these two seas share the same country and the same river, they could not be more different. The Sea of Galilee, in the North, has fresh water, and abounds with life. There are fish in its waters and lush vegetation growing on its shores. Ninety miles south, the Jordan River ends at the Dead Sea. Unlike the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea has such a high mineral content that it cannot sustain life. There are no fish in its waters and no vegetation growing on its shores. The Sea of Galilee receives water from its surroundings and then channels it out through the Jordan River. It receives and it gives; water flows in, and water flows out. But the Dead Sea at the other end of the Jordan River has no outlet. It keeps every drop of water it gets for itself, and this creates a stagnant and polluted body of water that’s dead.
If we approach Lent as something that’s just good for us, as something that will improve the quality of our spiritual lives alone, then I’m not really sure that it’s such a good thing for us to be doing. There’s such a thing as spiritual greed, of wanting to acquire more and more spiritual experiences so that we’ll feel better about ourselves, and maybe even think that we’re spiritually better than everybody else. Lent can become just such an exercise in spiritual self-aggrandizement. This is why Jesus explicitly warned His disciples about doing spiritual practices just to be seen by others (Matthew 6). Lent can easily become that kind of spiritual dead end if we aren’t careful. But if instead, Lent becomes a way for us to intentionally drink afresh of the living water that Christ wants to give us so that out of our hearts can flow rivers of living water (John 7:38), then these next 40 days might just be the most important of the entire year for us, for the church, and for our world. DBS +