Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Deep the Waters

“Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through” (Ezek 47:5).

Ezekiel, like most prophesy in the Bible, has at times struck me either as obscure and alienating or as clarity and truth. At an intellectual level, I enjoy Ezekiel’s prophesy because of the vivid images, the images that both are seeing and emphasize seeing, and that speak to the desperate hope of an exiled people that they will come home. At an emotional level, I often feel frustrated because the text is confusing and sometimes much too literal for my liking.

Ezekiel 47:1-12 records Ezekiel’s vision of a great river flowing from the threshold of the temple. The vision itself is understood in the context of the Babylonian exile: the temple has been desecrated and destroyed, and the people carried away to a foreign land. For Ezekiel, the exile is the result of Israel’s sin, and her ongoing willingness to sin in breaking her word to the Babylonian king. The emotional core of the book is two-fold – the rebuilding of the temple, and the purification and return of the people to their land where God will rule over them. When Ezekiel sees the river flowing from the threshold of the temple, it is the near-culmination of his visions of a restored people, a restored worship, and the restored rule of God.

The river that flows down from the threshold of the temple begins as shallow waters, only ankle deep. As the man in his vision leads him the distance of a thousand cubits, Ezekiel find the water to be knee-deep. A thousand more, and the water is up to his hips. A thousand more, and he finds the waters too deep to pass through.

The image of waters too deep to pass through is a powerful one. Imagine standing in shallow water and walking gradually onward as the water rises and rises up your body, cool and smooth, pressing on your chest and finally coming up just below your chin. It’s a crushing, suffocating feeling to me, so much water, knowing that to go onward is to risk drowning. Sometimes depression can feel like a deep river, never-ending waters rising up, a strange sense of calm on the surface of the water as you’re drowning.

I imagine this is how exiled Jerusalem must have felt: a people finding themselves further and further from the temple, the waters rising against them, the wild and quiet desperation. The river carries you away from holiness, familiar places, and takes you in its rising depths to strange lands where you are a stranger. I imagine the loneliness of a people standing deep in the waters by themselves, trying to get by, trying to make sense of it. The feeling that you are being carried further and further away from God, and that He has let you be taken. Ezekiel has certainty because he’s been led in a vision, but those to whom he speaks are a people searching for hope and whom he believes must be changed.

The image of deepening waters has always frightened and disturbed me, but here in Ezekiel I find it turns around on itself. Although the river moves further and further from the temple, there is no doubt that it flows from it and that it is holy. As the river flows, deeper and deeper, it regenerates the sea and the plants around its shores, bringing fruit to the trees and life to growing things. (47:6-12).  The temple itself has been restored, the center of faith and of the people – a people who need to be submerged and purified by the depth and force of God’s transforming power, giving them new hearts that they might turn and return to God’s rule, that they might turn and live.

Ezekiel’s vision, strange as it is, speaks of the promise of newness of life and a restoration of righteousness, to the glory of God. I’m not sure why this passage drew me in, as I have so little to say about it, except that it made me see the image of rising waters in a new way.

Sometimes depression can feel as though you’re being carried further and further away from God, further and further away from holiness, from the center of your being. But if the swelling waters that carry you come from God, you are never truly far from Him no matter how far you travel. I don’t believe that depression comes from God in the way that the water flows from the temple – God does not create it to carry you away, to swallow you in its depths. But God is there in it, because God is the source of all goodness and even at the farthest points goodness remains.

Depression can make you feel like you’re drowning, quietly and alone. But the waters are also life-giving, fecund, and miraculous. I don’t believe that depression is some kind of gift from God that ultimately, on its own, has some great metaphysical meaning. But God can create goodness out of anything, even the darkest moments and the most frightening depths, if you allow Him that space. God is life-giving and calls us always to choose life. Unlike Ezekiel, we are not all prophets having visions. We do not know where we are going. But we trust that God, the live-giving Source, will be there.

Depression can turn your whole world upside down. But in saving the remnant God works profound change and leads His people on new paths of righteousness. I don’t believe that depression is a punishment from God for our sins, or that it will purify us, but I do believe that God’s love is transformative and at work in all times and places.

You may feel as though you are being carried away, as though you are too deep in the river, as though the sea presses up against you and you are drowning. But no matter the distance, or the depths, there is no river that cannot be passed through, because God has the power to part the waters.

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