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The Same River, Twice – 9/7/2014

“You can never set foot in the same river twice.” This little morsel of wisdom is frequently attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 2,500 years ago. Heraclitus was powerfully influential in his thinking and writing, but none of his works have survived into the modern day. What we know about what he actually thought and said comes to us in fragmented quotations from people who used his words either to back up their own ideas, or as an example of something they were disagreeing with. He’s sort of like an obscure musician who gets name-checked in an interview by a pop star, or whose music gets sampled in a song on the radio. Unless you work in a record store or still insist on making mix tapes instead of Spotify playlists, you probably haven’t heard of him. But his songs – or in this case, his ideas – keep popping up.

This river business comes in part from two different quotations from Heraclitus that come down to us through Plato. In the first, the philosopher says, “Everything changes and nothing remains still…you cannot step twice into the same stream.” This is almost a perfect match to the more familiar saying, and you can probably see why it’s become common wisdom. Of course the river is different: new water flows in, old water flows out. Time passes moment to moment, and no object or person is unchanging or immutable. When Alice Walker wrote the story of what it was like to help transform her novel, The Color Purple, into a film, she titled that narrative, “The Same River Twice”. The title points to how hard it is not just to revisit something in the past, but also to reach any point in the future on a planned trajectory. Walker talks about plans for the movie that were never realized, a script she wrote that went unused, and “how difficult it is for a creative person to stick to one way of doing things.” Difficult for a creative person, or any other sort of person, for that matter.

But there’s a second quotation included by Plato that changes and almost contradicts the first. Heraclitus says, “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” Yes it is true, moment to moment, we are changed, we are different. The cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Even the atoms in our cells are exchanged over time. And yet, we are also the same. We retain memories and experiences, and still carry the gifts and burdens of the choices we make. We remain responsible to and for the people we have been. Our lives are almost like the opposite of rivers: life’s course can change in an instant, but the stuff it is made of – everything we have ever done or said or experienced – only shifts very slowly over time.

I once sat and talked with a man over tea in his living room, and this is the story he told me. When he was younger, he had been in the Air Force. He was a crewman assigned to a long-range bomber. It was the height of the Cold War, and in all his years of service the enemy remained the same, and so did the targets he was assigned. He and the rest of the crew practiced the same run, for years, and part of his job was to pore over photographs of the target, so that he could recognize it at night, even when there was no moon out, and the sky was full of clouds. They had a primary target they were assigned to, and they also had a secondary one; it wasn’t as important, but if they could catch it on the way back, or if they couldn’t make it all the way to their main destination, this was where they were supposed to drop their payload. He spent whole days staring at pictures of the place, all taken from overhead.

Luckily for this fellow, and for everyone else on Earth, he was never called upon to put that preparation to use. It never got that far. So he retired from the Air Force, he got a civilian job, and years later, the world changed. Governments fell and new ones rose up, borders shifted, and journeys that had been impossible to make before became much, much easier. This is what made it possible for him and his wife to visit Eastern Europe. They toured the countryside and saw ancient and famous cities, and then one day, they were crossing over a river, and the man stopped. He looked from one side of the river to another, and then down at the bridge they were standing on. He looked at the tall buildings on the Western bank, and he got out a street map just to be sure. “This is it,” he said to his wife. “This was our secondary target.” All those years spent preparing to go there, to bomb the bridge. He had never expected he would ever get to stand on it, or see the river up close. That bridge was so beautiful in person. It was the same bridge, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t the same river, and it was. It was a man who always expected to see the place in person, but never in that way.

Way back in the early days of European settlement on the North Shore, before Beverly was even called Beverly, this congregation was here. Well, not here, but a few blocks away. We weren’t called the First Parish Church then. We started out as the Church of Christ at Bass Riverside. Centuries later, not much is the same. A different river and different sort of town. A different church: a different name, different building, different location, different people, and a very different theology. But all of these things are also the same. We are responsible to our forbearers and to the dreams they dreamed, even if ours are not quite the same. We are connected to them even if their 17th century values might be scandalized to know that we are their descendants. Because they were, we are. No matter how we got here, we are here, and because we are here, how we came to be matters.

It is true for us as a congregation, and it is true for us each as human beings. We are not the people we were when we fell off our bike at eight years old, or when we got our first speeding ticket, or when our first marriage ended. Even in the space of a week or a day, the water of life passes through us bringing new fears, new experiences, new possibilities. But we are still connected to who we have been: all those past selves do not determine us entirely, but they are the material out of which our present lives are made. We must reach back: correct what we can, make peace where we can, and offer apologies where nothing else can be done. We cannot simply run from who we have been, or only hold tight, refusing inevitable change, for the river that was not only holds most of the river that is, but much of the makings of the river we have yet to become.

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

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