Saturday, March 8, 2014

POTM...*: Streams in the Desert

(*Photo of the Month)

I’ve an odd photo for this month’s POTM, one that is not only substandard in terms of the resolution quality we like to see (as once before, it is from an older cellphone), but also one whose composition is pretty random. But it prompts a thought in me, which is, of course, what this blog is all about.

Gail and I had the occasion to be doing ministry in southern New Mexico this past week, putting us in a city that we knew had the Rio Grande flowing through it. Nature nuts that we are, we looked forward to seeing it.

Now, we have not been around the Rio Grande very much in our travels, in fact very little. One of the great, historic rivers of our country, and one of the USA’s top five longest (nearly 2,000 miles), it rises in southwest Colorado on the east facing slopes of the San Juan Mountains (a subrange of the Rockies), near Stony Pass on the Continental Divide west of Creede. It then flows to the east and south through the Rio Grande National Forest, spilling into the San Luis Valley, one of Colorado’s many high country parks. These areas are where we have seen it, in fact, in places where it may be bounded through in several steps, if it is not rushing too quickly. From southern Colorado, it then turns almost due south, running through the entire, arid state of New Mexico, piercing the heart of Albuquerque. Further along, it very briefly forms the border between New Mexico and Texas, then slides around El Paso to become the international border between the United States (Texas) and Mexico for the next 1,254 miles, until finally emptying in the Atlantic’s Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it drains an enormous portion of the North American continent, picking up New Mexico’s/Texas’ Pecos River and Mexico’s Rio Conchos as its more major tributaries.

All schoolchildren know of it, especially because it forms our international border. Gail and I have seen it rushing through steep, southwest Colorado terrain, and also meandering like a drunken sailor through the flatness of the San Luis Valley. Beyond that, I had only seen photos, especially those taken from places like Big Bend National Park (a place on my bucket list) where the river seemed broad and its environs green, even as it traveled through the Chihuahuan Desert. And this is how I have always pictured it, all the way to the ocean. Don’t you imagine our international border as a wide, free-flowing river? Almost makes you want to sing America the Beautiful, doesn’t it?

…You mean 
the Rio Sand?

As I mentioned above, we had thought since the river was nearby that we’d like to see it while there. But upon mentioning it to someone, the chuckling comment was, “You mean the Rio Sand?” Say what? “Yeah, there’s not a drop of water flowing.” You’re kidding… “No, in recent years, the runoff from the north has been so minimal, and the irrigation demands along the way so high, that water doesn’t even make it this far.” I’m familiar with that, as I know the same is true for the mighty Colorado as it snakes its way beyond the Grand Canyon and down toward Mexico’s Baja before ‘flowing’ into the Pacific, if there’s anything left by then.

So here we were, having a meeting last Sunday night that would require us to cross the Rio Grande to get there. We left early so we could stop at a small park along the way and see it. And there it was: the Rio Grande riverbed. We couldn’t help but amble down the short bank and take the sandy walk, dry as dust, all the way across to the other side, snapping the photo above.

There’s something cosmically weird to me about a river that is no longer a river. Or with my apology to Robert Frost, "Something there is that doesn't love a dry river, that wants it flowing." I sure get the need for the use of it. Officially, it’s referred to as ‘overappropriated,’ i.e., there are more users for the water than there is water in the river. (Yes, there’s a sermon there.) And of course, all throughout the central and southwest states, water is being diverted from rivers and pumped from aquifers far faster than it is being replenished, and the piper will have to be paid at some point. But still, a river should be a river. Alive. Rolling. Fluid. God had his need to stem the flow of the Jordan for the Israelites to pass. But then it flowed again. Apparently 2001 was the first time in recorded history that a sandbar blocked the Rio Grande’s mouth, not a drop reaching the Gulf.

A river in a desert is a powerful image; so is a dry one, especially one presumed as mighty as the Rio Grande.

An interesting thing had been going on in the prophet Isaiah’s day (8th Century B.C.). King Hezekiah had led a massive public works effort to divert a spring from outside arid Jerusalem’s walls into the city, in preparation for an expected siege. As people are wont to do, it was a time when they quickly put their trust in things other than their God. So it is no wonder that Isaiah references over a dozen times in the middle portion of his book God’s ability to provide water for the people, even in the desert. “Turn back to him from whom you have deeply revolted,” Isaiah says (31:6). And then he speaks God’s words: “Watch, I am doing a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert… For I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen ones, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise (43:19-21).” (See also 32:2, 35:6-7, 41:18, 44:3-4, and others.)

Maybe that is why a missing river that is supposed to be flowing in a desert seems so cosmically wrong to me. God’s grace, provision and mercy is a river that will never be overappropriated.

~~RGM, March 5, 2014

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