For two decades, the Eno River in Durham, NC, has been an important temple for me. I know every inch of trail in both directions along the bank by the Cole Mill Road access point. It’s a ritual every time I come home to go walking on the Eno. And almost always I go swimming in the water, even if it’s January (because I’m crazy like that!). There’s something about cold water that speaks to me about the goodness of God. I can’t explain why. But when I’m lying on my back floating in the Eno, I look up at the sky and I think God is good. No matter what else is going on in my life, God’s goodness is all that exists during those moments.
Usually I go to a place called Bobbitt Hole, which is about a two mile hike from the Cole Mill Road parking lot. It’s the best swimming hole on the Eno, maybe 3-4 acres wide. Getting into the water isn’t too big of a challenge because there’s a tree that reaches out over the water and forms a natural stepladder. The bottom is mostly sandy with a few rocks but nothing that sticks up too far.
Well, I didn’t go to Bobbitt Hole today because I didn’t have enough time to hike that far. I went the opposite direction to a swimming hole that isn’t as nice but a lot closer. The deep part isn’t very easy to get to. You’ve either got to climb down a bank that is covered in poison ivy or you have to wade through knee deep water in a very rapid current with unpredictable, ankle-twisting rocks and rotten logs underneath.
Since I didn’t want to get poison ivy, I had to wade through the treacherous rapids. At first, I was a little bit nervous. The rocks were really slippery and sharp at the same time. But after a few moments, I decided it was just going to be okay to take it really slowly. So I got down on all fours and crab-walked over the rocks.
I’ve seen snakes in the water before, but the wonderful thing about poisonous snakes is they always swim on the surface. They’re never hiding on the bottom of the river where you’re stepping because they have to breathe. Too often I forgot that, and I walk through muddy water with terror. There weren’t any snakes in the water today. But there were lots of plants sticking out of the water. Something made me anxious about walking through the thickness of the plants even though I knew snakes don’t hide underwater. There was something nasty and slimy attached to one of the plants that seemed like it a leech. So I had to make my way slowly to a channel on the other side of the river.
When I finally made it to the deep water, something inside of me said, “This river has been good to me and so is God.” My Calvinist friend Derek recently posted a blog called “The Secret Things Belong to the Lord.” Even though it’s making the typical Calvinist argument about how everything that happens is part of God’s will (or something like that), Derek writes with a refreshingly atypical humility and nuance. I don’t know whether I agree with him or not. I trust that God is good and I believe enough in God’s power to plead for his deliverance from evil. But I’m never going to say that God causes cancer or schizophrenia or murder or any other evil. I don’t understand how God is in charge of the world. I do know the world doesn’t look like it will when God is finished. Mostly, I think it’s worthless to talk about such matters in theological abstraction outside of specific pastoral contexts. Maybe others find it helpful.
I had these thoughts in my mind as I was crawling through a muddy, treacherous river. There’s so much mystery in this world that’s like the bottom of a river you can’t see through the muck. There are so many sharp, jagged things under the surface that can cut us and break our bones. The world belongs to God just like the sharp rocks and submerged tree branches and leeches and snakes belong to the river.
I wouldn’t blame God for twisted ankles or snake bites any more than I’d blame the river that is their much more immediate cause. Somehow I’ve decided to say God is good just like the river is good. Somehow despite whatever ugliness lives under the surface of my life, I can float on my back in a river, look up at the sky, and feel the cool goodness of God touching every part of my body.
I’ve been dealing with some deep, dark things that have nothing to do with my book release or anything else that I’ve shared publicly. Sometimes I can shut them out by hardening my heart against them. But I’m going through a season right now when I can’t. In the midst of this darkness, the river is still good to me and so is God. It just seems like that’s just the way it works. God doesn’t necessarily make everything fall into place the way we want. God doesn’t necessarily make people change who are hurting us. But God does give us moments of pure goodness in which our wounds and worries are swallowed up by an eternal present. And that goodness is what I’ve decided to hold onto.