A River is only a River if there is a Valley

Source: National Park Services

Writing in his 100th year, my friend and mentor James M. Houston reflects on Psalm 1, as he says, “from his hospital bed.”

Dear Friends;

For generations, God’s people, especially in hardship, turn to the Psalms. At this moment, pandemics, ‘hot wars’ in Europe, oil and food price shocks, to mention but a few, seem quite enough reasons to search from some comfort in the chaos. Yet, for many of us, Psalm 1, the gateway to the psalter, is rocky ground on whose hard words we hurt our feet, with sounds that do not resonate in our ears. Much of its language is discordant, uncomfortable, even overly harsh for our politically corrected ears. We are greeted in its early verses by the ‘counsel of the wicked’, the ‘way of sinners’ and the ‘seat of scoffers’. Then, after a brief interlude, sent on our way with ‘chaff which the wind drives away’, and more ‘wicked’, more ‘sinners’, new judgement, all building to a crescendo in the dire prediction that ‘the wicked will perish’. Surrounded as we are by pandemic induced chaos, geo-political turmoil, and a seething form of PTSD that seems to have strangled us all in some way or another, why would I ever bother to pick up the psalter, if this is how I am greeted? And yet, through this wasteland of discouragement and even deep discord, a river of life runs.

A river is only a river if there is a valley, if there are mountains between which it can meander, if at the edge of its vibrant flow, there are dark and even dirty banks. The river is only a river when it is not the surrounding landscape, when it carves its way through the rocky detritus which it may itself have uncovered from the earth. In the centre of this psalm is the metaphor of tree and river. As if hearkening back to the precious but remote first word “Blessed”, which seems soon lost in the din of wicked, sinners and scoffers, the psalm comes to vibrant signs of life, of choice, profound, gritty, determined, choice to root by and in the river. And as like parched pilgrims in this darkened wasteland that threatens to consume, we find at the epicentre of the psalm – literally the word that stands at the linguistic centre with as many words before as after – the reality of vibrant fruit and all the promise of future life it entails…

There is something stunningly defiant in the essential character of all fruit. It is borne to hold the seeds of new life. To be scattered all about… Its purpose is to stretch forward, beyond even its own death, to a new life, to wrench a new generation from the decaying present. Here, in this metaphor of the fruitful tree, nourished by a river that gives life and flows in spite of, and perhaps even, for a time, because of the surrounding misery, lies the precious promise of this threshold psalm. For us all, we have this choice; where will I root, what fruit will I bear? It would be so lovely if the tree stood by the river and bore its happy fruit amidst the smiling sunshine of a breezy day as fluffy clouds scudded across the friendly sky. Instead, to bear fruit ‘in season’ is to wait for that season to come. For the leaf to ‘not wither’ it must endure withering forces or how can it ‘not wither’? How can there be prospering if there is no pressing on, in spite of the overwhelming rationale to despair of the encroaching darkness? This is a defiant, rooted, persistent, obedient, radically hopeful tree that, amidst all the abundant rationale to shrink back, chooses to bear fruit! This is what I choose to wake into every day, even as so many of my days are now past. This persistence drives me to ask Chris so often, what can I write now? Once resolved to live, how can I still bear fruit for the One who has so rooted me in His grace?

Here, in this welcoming psalm is our daily choice, to choose to live a fruitful life, today, in this moment, amidst all the surrounding discordance. Hope is surely not a method, but it is a choice. There is no more profound choice for each day than to root deeper, draw more nourishment still from the streams of living water by which we have chosen to be planted. Thus rooted, defying all the encroaching and angry darkness, with every quaking breath we can summon, with all the saints who have for generations pondered these words, we declare for ourselves, I am “Blessed” and so, by Grace, bear much fruit, for His glory.

My prayer for as you find your own encouragement in this psalm is to look forward, beyond the profound and sometimes deep disappointment of today, into a season of fruit-bearing. For that, we must each find a ‘new song’ to sing unto the Lord and to the singing of those new songs, we shall now turn.

With my blessing that you each be “Blessed!”


Remarkable to have such profound insight, squeezed out, as it were, from the winepress of a long life.  Or to be more consistent with the metaphor: wisdom gathered along the meandering river of a life that has gone through its own valleys, as he says:

“A river is only a river if there is a valley… the river is only a river… when it carves its way through the rocky detritus which it may itself have uncovered from the earth.”

Perhaps Jim cannot help but use geographical metaphors since he has been a “geographer of ideas” – but then he would balk against the inherent reductionism of being labelled by one’s career. He is, as he beckons all his students, much more in Christ than in oneself alone.

To read the letter in full, go to “Letters from a Hospital Bed #29“.

For more on the Psalms, you may be interested in his commentaries:

The Psalms as Christian Worship

The Psalms as Christian Lament

The Psalms as Christian Praise


About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
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