“Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.” In the centuries-old spiritual, we’re told to wade into the healing water because God will “trouble” the water. In the song, “to trouble” is an old word meaning “to stir up,” and doesn’t necessarily have the modern meaning of trouble as “distress or pain.” But my ears hear a double meaning. I wonder if the double-meaning was intended all along, and suspect the people who wrote the song fully appreciated the multi-dimensionality of the word. I wonder: does Spirit sometimes lead us to our healing by allowing us to wander into trouble, where we are knee-deep in distress and pain?
Based on what I have observed in my own life and those of many confidantes, I have to say yes. In no way do I believe in a punishing, sadistic God who causes pain or trouble (in fact, I don’t believe in a personified God, though personification is often the only way to symbolically wrap our minds around a relational divinity). Intimate acquaintance with synchronicity convinces me that God often directs us to safety when we need it. Yet at times it does seem God leaves us to the shunting, disorienting ride of our destructive will—that is, our small self, not the God-filled, integrated True Self. And when our egoistic will is at the helm, trouble usually ensues … eventually ushering us straight into our growth, our learning, our redemption. God’s seeming absence as we wander into trouble is not unloving, but actually the most costly and mature love of all, as anyone knows who has loved with painful, freedom-giving love a young person or intimate boarding a self-destructive ride to maturity.
In many Native cultures, young people are sent on “vision quests” at adolescence. These experiences vary according to culture, but often involve an intentional wandering into trouble. Usually vision quests include long fasts in remote, sacred sites, but also arduous tasks (carrying large boulders up mountains to sacred cairns, for example) that leave the questers bloodied and vomiting and broken. The quest involves a release of control, a “breaking open” accompanied by anguished cries and prayers that create access for visions preparing the quester for vocation.
Vision-quest initiations are pivotal in the spiritual journeys of those who undertake them, which makes me wonder if cultures without formal vision quests force us to stumble into less intentional crises to break us open, making us ready to receive the guidance of Spirit. And if that is the case, maybe Spirit does trouble the water (to use the symbolic image), allowing us to stumble into distress and pain, to guide us to healing and a deeper understanding of life’s purpose.
Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr, questions whether for modern people the “midlife crisis” represents the last chance for the ego to be unseated in the course of a life. He ponders: “[maybe] it’s God’s shaking the tree one last time and challenging us. Will you give up the illusion? Will you stop being just who you think you’re supposed to be and finally be who you really are?” Rohr uses the anthropomorphic symbolism of God “shaking a tree,” which reminds me of “troubling the waters.”
In the same manner that this pattern works in individual lives, it seems to work among collectives of individuals, even nations. Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water. The pattern is there in nature (micro scale), and in the cosmos (macro scale). The pattern of destruction/death and rebuilding/rebirth happens not just once, but over and over in endless succession. Those who live in northern climes see it graphically reenacted before our eyes each winter. Everything must go through the trial. In the spiritual life, we say “you must die before you die.” In nature, we call it the circle of life. Why should we not expect to see this pattern on the national level? As on the personal level, we are on the national level left to wander into a trouble of our own making.
These days, the majority of people in the US and globally see our collective, national waters as troubled. We seem to be entering a period of tearing down on a high level that will (eventually) proceed some kind of high-level rebuilding. Legal protections for people of color, immigrants, and LGBT people are being threatened, as are protections for the environment and for non-human species. Shared social mores are being torn apart that in the past put a damper on certain abuses of power—such as the forty-fifth’s refusal to take questions from respected reporters who disagree with him, or his open berating of journalists and civil agencies, his easily caught lies, his refusal to bend to the emoluments clause, his recorded admissions to sexual aggression, his coziness with Vladimir Putin as the Russian president tampers with our electoral process (and on and on …). Shared social mores around how we speak to one another have been shredded as the one now sitting in the oval office gives permission for hate speech at his rallies and participates in hate speech himself.
In connecting these affronts to a perennial pattern of destruction/rebuilding or death/rebirth, I am not minimizing the tragedy of them, or what they will mean for people on the wrong side of governmental power. We should oppose the destructiveness of these behaviors and strive to embody their antithesis. In so doing, we will precipitate a more rapid rebuilding. Ignoring these affronts or fighting them in ways that further tear down relationships and ethical norms will only prolong our winter of destruction and death. As in an individual’s struggle with the “troubled waters” of addiction, recovery starts when we admit and name the problem and surrender to divine guidance toward the path of rebirth.
I also acknowledge that the sequence of destruction and rebuilding is happening simultaneously, at myriad levels, all the time, like intersecting ripples on a pond during a rain storm. Injustice goes away in one setting, then persists or begins in another. It must constantly be named, wherever it appears at a given time. But at present, it appears to be more visible at the highest levels of government than it has been in a while.
Since its inception, the United States has epitomized the perennial pattern of death and rebirth as much as any country. It is a nation built simultaneously on the loftiest written principles of government and social justice movements, and on the unimaginable evil of slavery and the genocide and disenfranchisement of indigenous people. It is also a place we continually strive to remake, reawaken, and re-access; a place that evolves as we tear down structures of domination and build new structures of justice.
Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water. That means now. We as a nation have collectively wandered into deep trouble. I suggest we learn what this latest round of trouble has to teach us. May it eventually be to our good.