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A River Runs Through It

One of our last meetings in August was at a church in New Hampshire about three miles from the Vermont border. The pastor lived in Vermont and we were to spend the night at his home on the Saturday before I preached. We had some time to kill before we were to arrive at his house in the evening so we stopped in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont for lunch and then drove north of town where we spied a covered bridge over the Connecticut River with a rest stop nearby. We pulled over and ventured down the rock steps underneath the bridge.

Anytime we are near water Isaiah feels compelled to throw rocks or any object heavy enough to make a plunk sound. He kept himself busy. As is Pearl’s nature, the river was just another excuse for her to smile. For Sandy and I it was a moment to exhale. The previous six weeks had been a mad rush of meetings and mileage. Although we did have times we were able to relax while on the road there was something very peaceful about standing next to the river, admiring its beauty.

Norman Maclean wrote a book titled A River Runs Through It that was made into a move in the early ’90’s. As we stood next to the Connecticut River the closing line from Maclean’s story came to mind… “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” I had never really given much thought to what this line meant until now but before I comment on it perhaps I should give a quick synopsis of the story. A River Runs Through It reconstructs remembered people and places from the life of Norman Maclean. He and his brother Paul were the sons of a Presbyterian father and devoted mother, raised in post WWI Montana. The two brothers on whom the story centers, quiet and scholarly Norman and the wilder, more magnetic Paul, are taught the scriptures by their father as well as fly-fishing, the latter by first mastering the disciplined art of casting. The boys grow up, get into trouble with their pranks, fight to see who’s tougher, and do the things brothers do. They are at similar points in their lives before college but when Norm returns from his six years at Dartmouth, things are very different. Paul is a grad from a nearby college and newspaper reporter who knows every cop on the beat and every judge on the bench. Norman is well educated but has little idea what to do with his life, even as his father grills him about what he intends to do. It’s ironic that the younger son Paul masters so beautifully the art of fly-fishing but cannot seem to master his own life. Paul’s life rages toward ruin with gambling and drink. Norman is frustrated by his inability to understand his brother or to know how to help him. Norm finds, in part because of his brother’s ability to deflect what he does not want to hear, that he cannot even really talk to Paul about his concern for him. Near the end of the story, Paul is killed in a fight and his body is dumped in an alley, and Norman is summoned by the police to be told the news. Nothing was ever the same. Their father never walked well again and their mother just lived in silence. Paul’s death was never understood by anyone. The only closure that Norman could bring to himself or his parents was that “you can love completely without complete understanding.”

So what does the phrase, “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it” actually mean? It would seem a key to unlock its meaning is given at the beginning of the story. In the opening line Norman says, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” He also relates how the brothers would walk the hills with their father as he unwound between Sunday morning and evening services. The father would ask the brothers, “What is the chief end of man?” And they would reply, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” It seems fly-fishing expressed all that was unspoken and mysterious about the people Norman loved best as well as their connection to God. Paul was artful and full of grace when out in God’s nature but his life was a train-wreck away from the river. Norm concludes, “I am haunted by waters.” His thought encapsulates how little we understand about what really goes on in the depths of anyone’s soul, even those closest to us, and how we cannot impose our will upon their own.

There is no way I can determine the course in life my children will choose to take. In the end, I pray their choice will be to glorify God and enjoy Him forever rather than taste the pleasures of sin for a season.

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” Psalm 1:1-3

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