The Impeded Stream
Like some of you, I grew up singing the old hymn, “The Haven of Rest,” taken from the account of the Apostle Paul’s sea journey as a prisoner of Rome. I can still hear the congregation singing this line:
“I’ve anchored my soul in the ‘Haven of Rest,’
I’ll sail the wide seas no more;
The tempest may sweep over wild, stormy, deep,
In Jesus I’m safe evermore.”
Until recently, I had not thought about it, but when I went back to look at the story again I realized this may be one of those many instances when an enthusiastic songwriter unintentionally distorted the biblical text.
There are three harbors in the story and each with a different purpose. The first is Fair Havens (Haven of Rest); the second is Phoenix, and the third is Malta.
Phoenix is a haven needed for an extended period of time in our lives when we are forced to be out of the journey for longer than we had expected. It is a place to spend, as Paul was hoping, a season of life until going on. It’s not always the place you want to be, but it is a harbor for the times when life is interrupted for sometimes years until we can resume.
Malta is a harbor needed to recover from a catastrophe. It is shelter for the time we lose everything in life and need a fresh start.
The Haven of Rest or Fair Havens in the account is not a permanent retreat from the “wild, stormy, deep” but a temporary respite from the headwinds we all face. It is for the times we find ourselves sailing close to the safety of the shore for a variety of reasons.
Paul’s companion, Luke, describes it well writing that the headwinds would not allow the ship to make progress. It had become immobilized and stuck. Our lives can be like that. All of us experience headwinds in our lives, times when we seem to be making little progress. It’s not catastrophic or life-threatening but a daily weariness of working hard just to keep up. Everything is difficult. Everything is slow. Everything is tentative. And everything is unresolved.
We want to lay low and not venture out. Our instruments are not working, and we have lost our bearings, confidence, and momentum.
This isn’t a whole life or even a whole season. It’s a time for what the writer Wendell Berry would call “an impeded stream.” It’s not a time to retreat permanently from the sea. Just the opposite. We can even welcome the impediments:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
We all have havens God has placed in our lives along the way for these natural periods of being baffled and impeded. The haven may be a place but it is more likely to be people. It is probably someone not feeling the need for fixing your life or hold up inspirational flash cards of cheap encouragement, pat you on the back, and send you on your way. No, I mean people like Henri Nouwen when he writes about the ministry of presence:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”
Isn’t that what we need more than anything? Handshakes and hugs and someone who knows our name and helps us remember who we are. For me, that’s the temporary and welcome haven of rest.