Down in the River to Pray 5-1-16

Gathered at the River

by Denise Levertov

As if the trees were not indifferent

A breeze flutters the candles but the trees give off

a sense of listening, of hush.

The dust of August on their leaves.

But it grows dark.  Their dark green

is something known about, not seen.

But summer twilight takes away

only color, not form.  The tree-forms,

massive trunks and the great domed heads,

leaning in towards us, are visible.

a half-circle of attention.

they listen because the war

we speak of, the human war with ourselves,

the war against earth,

against nature,

is a war against them.

The words are spoken

of those who survived a while,

living shadowgraphs, eyes fixed forever

on witnessed horror,

who survived to give

testimony, that no-one,

may plead ignorance.

Contra naturam.  the trees,

the trees are not indifferent.

We intone together, Never again,

we stand in a circle,

singing, speaking, making vows.

remembering the dead,

of Hiroshima,

of Nagasaki

We are holding candles, we kneel to set them

afloat on the dark river

as they do

there in Hiroshima.  We are invoking

saints and prophets,

heroes and heroines of justice and peace,

to be with us, to help us

stop the torment of our evil dreams.

Windthreatened flames bob on the current.

They don’t get far from the shore.  But none capsizes

even in the swell of the boat’s wake.

The waxy paper cups sheltering them

catch fire.  But still the candles

sail their gold downstream.

And still the trees ponder our strange doings, as if

we fail also for them,

if our resolves and prayers are weak and fail

there will be nothing left of their slow and innocent wisdom,

no roots,

no bole nor branch

no memory

of shade,

of leaf,

no pollen.


You may have noticed that we have a river theme going on here this morning. You may have guessed some of what that’s about – I’ll give you a hint, it’s not because it’s raining. Notice the river in our reading this morning and let’s talk a little about the significance of rivers in our faith and in our lives.

Acts 16:9-15 Then one night Paul had a vision.  A Macedonian stood before him and said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After this vision, we immediately made efforts to get across to Macedonia, convinced that God had called us to bring the Good News. We put out to sea from Troas and set a course straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis;

from there we went to Philippi, which is one of the bigger cities in Macedonia and a Roman colony, and spent a few days there. On the Sabbath we went along the river outside the gates, thinking we might find a place of prayer.  We sat down and preached to the women who had come to the gathering. One of them was named Lydia, a devout woman from the town of Thyatira who was in the purple-dye trade.  As she listened to us, Christ opened her heart to accept what Paul was saying. After she and her household  were baptized, she extended us an invitation: If you are convinced that I am a believer in Christ, please come and stay with us.

We accepted.

May 1, 2016

Down in the River to Pray

The Bryn Mawr/Haverford choir and the Lincoln University choir sang at the Episcopal cathedral a couple of weeks ago. I was lucky enough to hear their first song “As I Went Down in the River to Pray.” That seemed strange to me. I had never heard the song phrased that way – down in the river instead of down to the river to pray. I might not have thought about it again, except that I taped on my phone the two choirs singing – one Black choir and one mostly White, singing to each other, and I have listened to it several times since the concert.

And then this passage presented itself as the assigned reading for this morning. The reading is about Lydia, the seller of purple cloth. It is a purple Sunday, not just because Prince died last week, but because of Lydia, who sold cloth, beautiful cloth, pricy cloth, the kind of cloth that gets noticed, the kind that we think probably meant that Lydia was a fairly successful businesswoman. Since there is no mention of a husband and a strong indication that she may have been an important disciple in this early Christian Jewish movement, we may speculate that she helped to sponsor one of the early churches.


Lydia’s was a Godfearer, the passage says. God-fearers were gentile people hanging around the boundaries of the synagogue, intrigued by the Jewish belief in one God, but not ready to go all the way in their customs. These were the people Paul and other early disciples searched out as perfect candidates for their message because of their attraction to but exclusion from the Jewish faith in one God.

I noticed reading the passage this time how Paul went down the river looking for a place of prayer, along the river outside the gates. They were going down to the river to pray, but also going down to the river to find people who were praying. They wanted to find the Godfearers. Why did they think they would find them down by the river praying?

One reason seems to be that they were outside the gates, a little separate from the city and from the synagogue. The most obvious reason might be that the river was where they baptized people and so they met there to worship. Also, the river was a symbol of life for the city. We read in Revelation about the river that flows through the middle of the city – a source of nourishment for the trees of life and the flourishing of the city.

So as we thought about this question in our Bible study, I started telling them about the gorgeous choirs at the Cathedral singing “Down in the River to Pray.” Then I remembered being at the Wild Goose Festival two years ago. I camped that rainy weekend next to this rather imposing river. I don’t know what it’s like when the weather is a little drier, but when I was there in the evening you had to raise your voice a little to be heard over the river.

During the evening program someone got up to make an announcement, that there would be a prayer service the next morning in the river. I had to wonder what that meant. The next morning after a slightly soggy night in my tent, I got up and started walking down the muddy road looking for the worship place in the river.

When I got there, the service was near the end, but there they were about 12 to fifteen men and women standing in the flowing river singing “Down to the River to Pray.” The benediction was strong, given partly by the leader and partly by the river. I was a little embarrassed to be watching fully clothed from the road as the worshippers came up the bank to dry off.

I could feel the power of the prayer, the sense of vulnerability of being in the water flowing around the bodies of the people praying. You know how the ocean flows around you and pushes you this way and that when you are at the beach? You feel the power of a force beyond yourself, a power stronger, older, maybe primordial. You feel the movement of forces of the universe of which we are usually not aware – tides, undercurrent, life in the mud and the water.

I imagine the early Christians felt that force of the river as they went down in the river to pray, to be baptized, to be cleansed, to be renewed, to be made whole. I like to think of Lydia and her friends feeling strong and confident as they prayed in the river and next to the river, feeling God’s power and God’s presence in those waters. Lydia became the first Christian convert in Europe when she was baptized by Paul in that river. As a citizen of Macedonia, in modern day northern Greece, she was the first of many baptized on Paul’s big missionary journey.

it must have been a moving, life changing, experience. Our lives have been changed by their lives being changed.

Today we come to the table of God’s powerful grace, remembering times in our lives when we felt God moving and renewing our lives, maybe noticing that God was moving in the currents of our lives even when we were not paying attention. We will receive the bread and cup by intinction. We may kneel at the altar for prayer after we receive the bread and the cup. Or you may return to your seat in prayer.

We know that there is a river, a movement of God’s purpose and God’s power flowing around us and through our communities even today. We felt that power of God’s river of grace flowing through Denis Okema two weeks ago as he told us the story of his survival after being a child soldier in Uganda. We notice that river flowing through the UNIFAT school and helping him to get out of the country.

We know there is a river that flows through our lives, a river that gives our lives meaning and purpose, a river that pulls us to unite with the struggles of all God’s people, a river that helps us to know in a sure and certain way that we are not alone, that we are praying and working together toward God’s way among us.

As you come to the table this morning, I invite you to remember the times when you felt part of that river of God’s grace and justice, times when you felt yourself pulled along, moved by God’s power and God’s renewing presence. May we feel a part of that flow again today. May we know ourselves as part of the river of God’s love.