Shall We Gather At The River?

Shall we gather at the river? Baptism seems to be preceded by a voyage. I’m not only speaking about Jesus going “down to the Jordan” to be baptized by John. I am thinking about our hymns and history. “Shall we gather at the river,” the hymn asks. In that is implied, “Shall we leave the church, the organ, the pulpit, and the pews.” Baptism, it seems, is an outdoor activity. No small font will do. We need water as it was made; a river where “bright angel feet have trod with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God.” This doesn’t sound like any ordinary river. I’m not certain the author has baptism in mind. This isn’t the gently flowing stream in the back yard or ocean waves at low tide. When the writer asks, “shall we gather at the river?” he means the river which divides the present from the future. Shall we go to the river at the end of time, where angels walk, and ultimately were we to follow its headwaters, we would be led directly to God. This is the shining river where we are told, we will lay our burdens down.

We will lay our burdens down by the river. Today, it seems our troubles begin along the river whether the Potomac or the Rio Grande. Along the Rio Grande River Valley, hundreds of property owners and ranchers have been in court since the second Bush administration fighting the government’s attempt to take their land via the process of eminent domain. Why? So the government can build more elaborate fences across the southwestern border. Those who live along the border tell of the difficulties of constructing barriers through mountains and across rivers. They know because they’ve lived there for decades. Rivers change a landscape. Water demands a route to the sea. Water isn’t easily containable by human barriers. Water is powerful in ways people rarely account for or imagine. Shall we gather at the river? Yes. Because the river flows where boundaries impede.

One of the President’s favorite fundamentalist preachers, Rev. Robert Jeffress went television this week to proclaim, “Heaven itself is going to have a wall. Not everybody is going to be allowed in.” I wonder how he knows this. Why does God need a wall? Who is God trying to exclude? God wants everybody, right?

I think Pastor Jeffress’ greatest fear is that more people will be there than he realizes. There will be no wall in heaven, and everybody is getting in. There Even Methodists so bent on keeping each other out of Methodism will be welcomed into the kingdom of God. You can quote me on that. If the river I’m singing about in “Shall We Gather at the River?” is flowing straight by the throne of God, there will be no wall. God’s river will find a way. Where there are rivers, there are no walls.

Richard Lowell Bryant