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Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

You will keep him in perfect peace,
Whose mind is stayed on You,
Because he trusts in You.
—Isaiah 26:3, NKJV

The word peace first caught my attention as a child when I heard the song “It Is Well with My Soul.”

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

From that moment forward, I associated the word peace with a river, a beautiful yet powerful watercourse I had never seen with my own eyes, but it was a place I longed for. Because I struggled to fit in and feel at home in the world around me, the idea of peace drew me in. I was hungry for the green leaves that sheltered the river and thirsty for the water that flowed throughout. When I learned the story behind the song, my association deepened even more.

Horatio Spafford’s four daughters died in a shipwreck while crossing the Atlantic. When he crossed the same ocean to join his grieving wife, who had survived the wreck, he penned the words to this song.

He had known peace to be like a river in his life, and sorrows to be like the sea. He had known more than one body of water. And for him, they meant different things.

As a young girl, I too associated the sea with sorrow. I learned of the slave trade that brought my ancestors over the Atlantic. The architectural plans in history books of their bodies lined up below the deck created a lump in my throat. If slaves grew ill or did not comply with the enslaver in some way, they were thrown overboard to their death. My stomach tightened at this knowledge. I still can’t look to the Atlantic Ocean without thinking of them.

In contrast, the river was a symbol of freedom and peace for my soul. I could feel this meaning in the Negro spirituals I sang as a child. All by grace, these songs have survived and traveled down through the generations. Through years of enslavement and relentless oppression, songs like “Deep River” became a part of the tradition:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan...
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?

The author of this song, and many others like it, remains unknown. I don’t have the privilege of knowing the authors’ individual stories. But I can feel the collective longing for peace beneath my skin, generations later.

As the song suggests, “peace” still exists within the question mark, not on the other side. Questions about justice, safety, healing, hope. Questions that make us wonder, “Will we ever be truly free?”

We’re still desperate to reach that deep river. We’re still desperate for peace.

  • Peace is a state of mind, heart, body, and soul. It is the freedom to breathe, even in the face of great challenges and chaos. Peace is the river in the desert, not on the other side of it.

Today I am still seeking that river. And not just a river far off somewhere that I must arrive at, but the river that runs wild and free in my inner life. The river that carves its way through my need for understanding and reminds me to slow down and breathe.

My senses strive for the smallest taste of peace in the morning’s dewy air. The steam lifting above poured tea. The way the house settles back into place after a freight train rolls by. Why? Because it is precisely that moment in the day when I return to the present moment. It is there I realize that when the walls shake, the ground is still steady beneath. My body finds the resolve it naturally seeks.

These are small things, yes, but in times lined with uncertainty, they remind me of the bigger things. They remind me that I can be aware of this very moment, no matter my fears of the future and no matter what I am wrestling from the past.

I am free to slow down long enough to reflect on what is true. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. The strength of my great-great-grandfather who was born a slave and died free. My parents, who taught me to sing songs of peace. The painters and poets who created openly and widely, never knowing of me. The teenage girl transformed by what they made — quietly taking in their work as I stood in the narrow gaps between the shelves at the local library. It was in that small space that I found freedom to breathe.

This is what peace means to me.

I have played around with the phrases finding peace and seeking peace and peace beyond understanding in my art and poetry. And not just because they fit nicely. I hope that for whoever is on the other side of that phrase, it reminds them to exhale, right in the middle of the uncertainty. For even when we haven’t yet seen the other side of the issues we’re facing, we are still worthy of breathing deep and knowing peace right here amid them.

I write this way because I am desperate for peace. And I have a feeling you might be too.

Peace Is a Practice is about learning to seek peace in daily life. It’s about realizing we are worthy of peace. And it starts right here: with a deep inhale and a hold-nothing-back exhale as you ground yourself in the grace of the present. You don’t have to arrive at your picture-perfect life before you can know peace. The river is here for you now, wherever you are.

Excerpted from Peace Is a Practice: An Invitation to Breathe Deep and Find a New Rhythm for Life by Morgan Harper Nichols, copyright Morgan Harper Nichols.

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Your Turn

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, taught His first disciples saying "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27) This is not pithy, mild peace, but His Peace, strong, bold, and steady. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily