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  • Writer's pictureBill Merrifield

Eddies of Transformation in Rivers of Brokenness

River Eddy

I grew up in the church hearing stories about transformed lives. My great-grandfather served in rescue mission work and our family gatherings were often peppered with testimonies of God’s miraculous works of transformation.

I also grew up seeing and experiencing brokenness. In middle school, I was exposed to pornography and struggled with my own failure to live the way that I wanted to and knew I should. I saw the difference between how others perceived me and what I knew was truly in my heart. I heard about pastors’ affairs. My high-school youth pastor was killed in a tragic accident.

I ended up at Wheaton College where these seemingly contradictory messages flooded my senses: God is at work transforming lives, and the world is broken, everywhere. These dueling realities were both exhilarating and exhausting. This experience was best illustrated in a campus revival that broke out during my senior year in the spring of 1995. Day after day, hour after hour, confessions of brokenness were followed by hours and days of prayer and the hope of new beginnings.

As my faith deepened, I wanted to be part of the solution to brokenness, to be one of God’s agents of transformation. And so, after I graduated, I stepped into the world determined to make a difference. But the world pushed back. For every story of transformation, I found hundreds of stories of brokenness. For every pocket of change, I found widespread and systemic corruption. In the shadows of missionary testimonies, I discovered countless lives of men and women who seemed to have made no difference at all.

The strong current of history revealed a river of human choices and actions constantly flowing away from God and his kingdom. As I tried to find my footing, to stand against the force of this river, I often felt overwhelmed by its power and violence. I began to wonder what hope there really is for transformation in this world.

And that is when God brought to my mind the vision of an eddy.

As a boy, I remember walking along the shores of a river and being drawn to the curiosity of a side-current eddy where, in a limited and defined space, the power of the river’s flow is temporarily reversed, providing a safe cove for objects being carried along by the river’s current.

A river eddy is a current of water that runs opposite to the main current. Eddies are caused by an obstruction in the river, such as a rock or fallen tree that interrupts the river’s flow.

I see in an eddy a picture of hope for transformation in this world. Not the hope or power to reverse the flow of the entire river, but the opportunity to stand firm, to stand in and feel the full force of the river and be unmoved. And in doing so, to create an obstruction and space for those who are being carried by the strong current of human brokenness; a space where they can temporarily experience the reverse flow of the kingdom of God.

On one level, when we stand unmoved in the current of human choices and actions flowing away from God, we create opportunities for everyone who interacts with us to catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Some may momentarily experience God’s kingdom through an act of forgiveness or love and then be swept back into the river’s main current. Others may find, in their encounter with us, a safe space where they can find rest and peace for a season.

We must all eventually step back into the river’s main current, but when we make the choice to step back in and stand firm, when we create eddies of transformation, we provide the opportunity for people to experience the kingdom of God and then decide whether they want to continue on down the river or stand firm with us and create eddies for others.

On a larger scale, I’ve also recognized that it is easier to create an eddy in the shallow part of the river. In the shallows, a small stone or tree can quickly create a small side-current eddy. But in the deeper parts of the river, where the current is most violent, it takes a large obstacle, a heavy and firmly rooted stone or pile of boulders, to create an eddy.

And it struck me that when we are willing to step into the deep parts of the river, it may take years or generations before followers of Jesus are able to create an obstacle large enough to produce a transformational eddy. Countless lives of men and women who seemed to have made no difference at all, slowly building an obstruction in the river that one day will create that liminal space for people or societies to experience the kingdom of God. For years, or generations, the river may flow over these lives that are slowly building up beneath the surface, that seem insignificant, until one day, enough people have stood firm for long enough, together, that an eddy emerges.

Now the difficult truth is that no matter how many eddies we create, we will never change the flow of the entire river. The strong current of human choices and actions will continue to flow away from God. The violence and brokenness of the river’s current will continue to drive people away from God’s kingdom, and those willing to stand firm will always be outnumbered by those who prefer the simplicity of just going with the flow. Our hope for transformation in this world is ultimately temporary and limited.

But be encouraged, this is not the end of the story. I live in Chicago where in the late 1800’s engineer Ellis Chesbrough proposed reversing the flow of the Chicago River as a way to remove the pollution threatening the city’s water supply. Chesbrough proposed digging a long ditch, deeper and wider than the Chicago River, and then connecting the river to the ditch, which he believed would reverse its flow. It was an audacious plan.

But the digging began, slowly, away from the main river, for years. Until one day, on the morning of January 2, 1900, a group of men set out in the early morning to strike the last blow to the last dam between the river and the ditch. And as the last blow was struck, the dam broke way, and the river reversed course.

Although I don’t always see it, I know that God is at work, digging deeper and wider than the depth and width of the river of human brokenness. And one day, when Jesus returns, he will strike the last blow to the last dam between the river and his ditch, and the flow of the river will reverse. It will no longer flow violently away from God, but will, instead, become the “river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1).

Until that time, as the people of God, we are called to:

Stand Firm, to not be overwhelmed by the violence of the river; to withstand the force of its current; in God’s power, to remain unmoved and rooted in place, so that we create an obstruction that interrupts the river’s flow. (Ephesians 6:10-16; 1 Corinthians 15:58)

Stand Together, to recognize that when we stand side-by-side, the eddies we create are greater and more powerful. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Matthew 18:20)

Be Intentional, to be willing to enter both the shallow and deep parts of the river even when we see no immediate impact. To value the importance of creating eddies in as many sections of the river as possible so that “by all possible means, we might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22; Ephesians 5:15-16; Colossians 4:5).

Wait Patiently, to accept that we are powerless to change the main current of human choices and actions that constantly flow away from God and his kingdom, but, that one day, God will reverse the entire river. (Romans 8:22-25; James 5:8)

Keep our eyes on eternity, to draw the strength to stand firm in our heavenly promise; to not let the stories of brokenness in this world obscure our vision of the promise of the world to come. (2 Corinthians 4:18; Colossians 3:12; Hebrews 11:13-16)

As I continue to try to find my footing, to stand against the force of the river of human brokenness, I once again have hope, hope that my life can be used to contribute to or create an eddy so that others will experience the goodness of the kingdom of God.

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