On our family trip to the Canadian Rockies this summer, we saw a lot of rivers and streams. Our boys, Chet (4) and Ira (2), loved throwing pebbles and rocks into these flowing waters every chance they got. It’s a universal boyish instinct. I had it too at their age (I still have it, TBH).
As I watched them toss these stones into rocky river beds, I returned to a thought that hovered in my mind throughout the trip, in part because of a song called “Whitewater” (by Zaac Pick) on our trip playlist. The lyrics begin:
Time is a river, babe, moving so fast
Over the banks of the bodies we have
Time is a river, babe, we don’t know how deep
We wade in and get swept off our feet
Time is indeed like a river. It never stops flowing. It goes in one direction. The current carries us all, whether we like it or not.
Rock Piles in the River
The more I pondered the image of the boys throwing stones into rivers, the more I started to see: we are the stones. The pebbles, awkwardly swept downstream in a muddy, violent current we can’t resist. We’re molded and shaped, eroded and transported, by the force of water we call time. And one day, like every stone whittled down by enough years of liquid force, we’ll become merely gravel and sand. Dust to dust (Eccles. 3:20).
While we live, though, we are like stones dwelling in the constant motion of time’s river. Sometimes, when the flow is tranquil, we rest in one place for a season. We build community with other rocks, and we’re formed as much by how we jostle against each other as we are by the force of the water itself.
But then there are moments when the current is so swift and forceful that we’re abruptly dislodged from the rock pile we called home and displaced downstream in a dramatic relocation. These deluges always come more suddenly than we like. Call them flash floods. Rarely do we have the chance to say proper goodbyes to the stone comrades we sat with for a time. We blink and we’re both in different places in the river, lodged in with new rock piles for another temporary stretch.
The current carries us all, whether we like it or not.
The first time I contemplated this metaphor was at the start of the summer when I picked Chet up from preschool on his last day of the school year. I knew what he could scarcely grasp—that his preschool playmates, the sweet little pebbles who found themselves in the same stream for about nine months, would never be in the same rock-pile community again. And as Chet was starting a new school in the fall, he’d most likely never see most of those buddies again.
So goes the harsh stream of time—indifferent to our human longing for permanence of place and people. Just when we attach to one, circumstances beyond our control move us on to another.
Together, for a Time
I realized later in the summer—standing on the banks of the Athabasca, the Bow, the Blaeberry, and countless other rivers and streams—that this is true of any community, including the community of family. Kira and I are like two stones who found each other in the stream and fused together in the mud, becoming one larger rock unit that has held together for 10 years thus far (God willing, for many decades more!). In those years we’ve broken off three little mini rocks, and by God’s grace we’ve kept our little rock community together as the river moves around us.
But I’m keenly aware (as every parent is) that this won’t last forever. One day the river will scatter the stones of our children, as they move on to form and be formed by other rocks. Today Chet and Ira are throwing stones into rivers as toddlers. Maybe the next time we’re all in Canada together they’ll be teenagers—picking up heavier rocks and chucking them into deeper waters. Then one day soon, they’ll be me: the dad watching his sons throw stones, repeating the primal cycle as the river moves ever on.
Time is a river, babe, picking up speed
There’s never enough to take all that you need
Time is a river, babe, and it’s sink or swim
No anchor will hold as we’re carried within
Eventually, maybe 80 years hence, the quintet formerly known as the McCracken Family Rock Pile will be scattered sand and silt, part of the river’s permanent bed rather than dancing with it in its fluid onward march. In 1,000 years, generations of our offspring may have passed down the river too, likely unaware of the rock kin from which they’ve broken off and over which they’ve flowed.
Peace like a River
It’s not a sad thought, to be aware of the relentless river and the impossibility of anchoring somewhere in it forever. Just as I experience a mysterious joy watching a river’s movement (aren’t all humans instinctively drawn to the beauty and truth of flowing water?), I accept with gratitude that my place in the river is as provisional and tenuous as the stone Chet picks up on the bank and throws into the current. I’m OK with this arrangement—and with the otherwise crushing thought of only briefly sharing a journey with the precious stones I call family and friends—for two main reasons.
It’s not a sad thought, to be aware of the relentless river and the impossibility of anchoring somewhere in it forever.
One, I know the river will end somewhere, in a sea of tranquility and everlasting rest (Heb. 4:1–11). Perhaps the stones I knew, loved, and finally lost on the journey will be there too. Maybe we’ll share memories of our respective cascading dramas that got us there and that sometimes overlapped.
Two, I trust the river’s source. If I thought the forceful current of time was just a random, purposeless flow, there would be no consolation in surrendering to its force. There would be only despair and a desperate swimming for the proverbial shore. But I know the river has a source, and a created beginning, and that its path is not aimless.
In that kind of stream, however punishing the journey still is, I find a measure of calm and comfort. It’s the serenity of knowing I’m on a path with a destination, and so are my wife, kids, and everyone else I love and encounter. None of us can stop the flow. But if we trust the source and know there’s a destination, we can enjoy the ride—safe passage to the stillest waters we’ll ever know, and an infinitely better shore.