For a homeowner, it’s possible there’s no greater headache-inducing discovery than to find that a portion of your home’s foundation is deteriorating—a threat, if left unaddressed (at least, according to the foundation contractors pitching their services on TV), that will pitch the beloved homestead at an angle or even (*gasp*) into a sinkhole.
With a little investigation, the culprit is often revealed. In the cracks and crevices, you see wavy silt lines and feel damp surfaces. Water has made its way to the foundation, where the merest trickle is enough to wreak havoc. The lowliest, merest drip of unrestrained agua persistently pattering on the same surface or through an opening for even a moderate length of time can touch off a series of circumstances that could result in thousands of dollars of repair. Believe me, I know.
If that’s the kind of damage a little bit of water can do, imagine how unsettling it was for me to find myself standing in a passageway 13 storeys below the surface of the earth with water tumbling overhead at a volume of 6 million cubic feet per minute. Even more unsettling is the realization that this particular passageway had to be built because a previous one no longer exists, having been worn away by time and erosion caused by the power of water—approximately one foot per year. Just 75 years before and 60 feet to my left there had been rock through which a tunnel had been driven. Now, in that space, there was just air. Well, mist-filled air.
And I thought a little trickle of water was bad news! Not long ago, on an early anniversary trip to Niagara Falls, my husband and I, I found myself fascinated by the immensity of the Falls—the height and width of the cascade (Canada’s Horseshoe Falls alone are 188 ft by 2,200 ft), the volume of water that passes over its crest every minute, the speed of the rapids that approach the cliff (average 25 mph, with the fastest recorded being 68 mph at the crest).
At the observation deck at the base of the cascade, my biodegradable poncho flew about my legs. I was peripherally aware of the stinging mist and noticed too late that my head had become uncovered, the poncho’s hood whipping around my face along with my hair. Here, at this place of roaring, thundering, falling water, it was raw, unrestrained power, and it commanded all of my attention.
Back up at the overlook, I leaned over the railing, mesmerized by the rushing, tumbling, cascading flow. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sight. It was like a luminous green monster slithering over the crest of the falls—an unearthly astronomical monster because it went on forever. Further upstream, the breadth of the river careening over rocks and around islands of otherworldly shapes, coming from a source beyond the horizon, made me wonder where all this water originates and I learned that Lake Erie dumps into Lake Ontario as part of the great Great Lake drainage. Does it never empty? How can there be so much water?
Of great concern to Falls watchers and geologists is the erosion that is taking place, causing the cliff wall to recede upriver a little more every year. The force of water driving through narrow canyons and along the Gorge riverbed is more destructive than my little foundation drip because its greater volume is being squeezed and compounded into narrower avenues. It rages because it’s battling through obstacles; even the smallest ridge along the walls of the riverbank produces resistance and must be beaten away. It eats away at the walls and beds and pounds at the rock crest of the Falls because even rocks, in time, give way to relentless battering.
My brain hurts as I try to reconcile my knowledge of and confidence in biblical creation and the age of the world with this appearance of evidence that multiple thousands of years of erosion had to take place for this phenomenon of Niagara Falls to be before me. Did water once seep through a depression, furrowing down to create a gorge, building up to explode as a river? Did it happen slowly or rapidly? Was it to give an impression of millions of years or are we delusional about the accuracy of our measuring skills? Did God cut through the earth and send the water crashing through the rockbed and over a specially designed cliff, then determine a rate of erosion and deterioration for the next few thousand years that would allow for men to make measurements—and then, as wise fools, presume themselves capable of theorizing where they had no witness?
I asked my husband these questions, but he shook his head, and I imagine I saw a ghost of a hand stopping his mouth at the presumption of such wonderings. Isaiah issues the challenge to question the ways of God:
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? . . . Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.” (Isaiah 40:12, 15)
The roar of the falls eventually faded away as we drove south across the border and toward our own meandering rivers in southwestern Pennsylvania. But the image of a vague hand of God cutting through sediment and foundations in order to open up a path for the Niagara River stayed with me.
There is a rock bed harder than that of the floor and walls of the Niagara, and it is buried within the soft flesh of every person born since the time of The Fall (not the Falls).
My heart was that rock bed once. Hard and unyielding and resistant to life, truth, mercy. Then it underwent erosion and battering, as John Donne writes,
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.*
God sliced through my heart of stone with a power saw. He scooped out the stony core and scraped away at the bits and pieces of rebellion and unbelief that clung to the walls. And then, being the supreme Artisan that he is, he fulfilled this promise from Ezekiel 36:26:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
Now that heart of flesh is circumcised by the Spirit—
“Circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit” (Romans 2:29)
and a new covenant being branded on it through the inward work of regeneration—
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
The Spirit of God takes hold and commences its work of sanctification, refining and chiseling and chipping away. This sculpting and molding done to me is all borne out of a love so immense and pure that I cannot humanly comprehend it—and I am slain in the process. My old self is put to death and the new creation is brought to life, being made in the likeness of the Son of God. Sometimes this erosion happens at warp-speed. Sometimes it seems it takes forever, and I wonder if callouses and sediment build up so that the work has to be repeated. But it is always a process of mortification—deathifying, if you will. We are branded for God. He has eroded my heart. As Rosaria Butterfield writes in her recent book, Openness Unhindered, “When we are owned by God, we are ruined for the world. And this marring of us for the world is one of the birthmarks of conversion.”
When I read the educational plaques along the passageway detailing the bad news of the deterioration of the face of the crest of the Falls, I admit I had to smile. According to the long-view of evolution, if there had been no erosion, there would be nothing to wonder at for anyone visiting this particular section of the border between the U.S. and Canada. No erosion: no Niagara Falls.
And according to Scripture, if there had been no erosion of my heart, there would be no hope of salvation, no union with Christ, no eternal glory. The marring and battering love of God is not cruel abuse. As the divine sculptor, he has a design for me that exceeds in beauty and glory all of his other earthly works. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the weak. He loves me, he reveals himself to me in power, and he renews my strength. Peace and joy lift me on sweet zephyrs above all stormy seas and raging rivers.
This erosion is God’s determined and determining love. All praise and glory to him for his battering work of regeneration and the continued chipping away of sanctification, for with it I am made new, being made new, and being remade as wholly different from this stony world. It is my “birthmark of conversion”.
“For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)