Of Canals and Reservoirs

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

 Mk. 1:35-39

This passage is, I am certain, pretty well-worn territory for folks who have been following Christ for a while, with principles that all sit fairly near the surface.

We note Jesus’ rhythm of prayer and ministry, pulling away and then engaging, only to pull away again in order to re-engage in life and service. We see a clarity of mind and purpose that comes out of this set-aside time. And we see a courage to go against the flow (in this case the disciples’ presumption of what needed to happen next) when directed by the Father.

All great components of a Spirit-led, on-mission, life-defining kind of life.

This last week I had someone place in front of me an image that relates to this text and was very encouraging for me. I really hope it will be for you, as well.

Essentially, it’s the contrast between a canal and a reservoir, and it was roughly based on a quote from the 11th Century French Abbot, Bernard of Clairvoux.

Think about it for a second. Form a picture in your head of the two—canal and reservoir. Got it? Okay.

Here’s what challenged me.

The canal is an especially useful resource for waterborne transportation and commerce. It does a great job of keeping things moving, all the time. In that sense it’s very productive, very active. The downside of the canal is this: it doesn’t have to be completely full in order to do a minimum amount of work. Sure, if you’re talking about moving tankers and barges through, then you’ll need to get the water level pretty high. But in theory, the canal could function at a very basic level at less than capacity for a long, long time.

The question to ask, though, is this: is this the very best way for the canal to be effective, to do its work? And, if the canal is always outflowing with a lesser amount of water than its capacity, what chance does it ever hold of taking on the really big rigs?

So let’s consider the reservoir, instead.

A reservoir, simply put, doesn’t do any “work” until it is overflowing. Only then will the nearby land drink in its abundance, or surplus. There is a necessary function of filling—to the brim—before a single drop bends over the top and then outward.

So, was Jesus living more of a reservoir kind of life than a canal kind of life? That’s probably debatable, depending on how you think of the image and its fitness to Biblical spiritual realities. And like most attempts at illustrating this kind of thing, it probably fails if we feel like the two ideas have to be in direct opposition to one another.

All I know is that in other places in the Gospels, He seems pretty committed to the kind of rhythm illustrated in the Mark 1 passage, whatever you might call it.

In Luke 12, it’s noted that Jesus spent the entire night alone in prayer before choosing the Twelve the next morning. Luke 9 pairs “Once when Jesus was praying in private and His disciples were with Him…” with the world-changing acknowledgment that He was indeed Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, only moments later. The transfiguration (Luke 9:29) happens during a time of set-aside prayer. And lastly, that wonderful-awful night in the Garden is a series of moments of deep connection with the Father, even as anguish and sorrow weighs Jesus’ soul down in anticipation of the next day’s horrors to come.

I think the idea of being a reservoir is not that easy to put into practice. I find myself far too inclined toward quick and constant action, as opposed to the discipline of waiting, looking to be filled, and then hopefully doing some good out of that abundance.

While every metaphor fails at some point to capture the depth and mystery of life in Christ, I did find myself thinking and praying more this last week about the idea of leaning more “reservoir” than “canal.”

What do you think? And what are the ways your reservoir gets to the top, in Christ?




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