Crossing the river to a new life

Playl's Ponderings


A few miles northeast of Roanoke, we drive across the James River, on I-81. It takes about three seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three...and we are across. We have crossed that bridge many times.

Traversing that same river a couple hundred miles downstream at the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge connecting Charles City County with Prince George County takes about 60 seconds - one full minute. We have driven over that bridge many times, traveling from Williamsburg to Petersburg to visit some of our stinking cute grandkids.

A few miles further downriver, the four-and-a-half mile James River Bridge connects Isle of Wight County with Newport News, Virginia, near the mouth of the James.

Between the James River Bridge and the Harrison Bridge, the river can be crossed near Jamestown Island via ferry. The trip from Jamestown to Surry County takes anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes by ferry, depending on how long it takes to get on and off the boat.      

There are other crossings on that particular river, but that’s enough to make my point - point being that it takes time to get from one side of a river to the other, and that time can vary greatly from one crossing to the next.

For many years, crossing the river, especially the Jordan River, has been used as a metaphor for death...dying is “crossing the river.” Several songs come to mind:

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie.”  -  The Rev. Samuel Stennett

 “Near the Cross I’ll watch and wait, hoping, trusting ever, til I reach the golden strand, Just beyond the river.”   -  Fanny Crosby

The image of crossing the river being compared with dying originated in John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress....but back to the point - crossing the river takes time, and that time varies for all of us, whether the reference is to a literal crossing of a physical body of water or a spiritual reference to passing from this life into the next.

Death comes at every imaginable age. Some precious souls never leave their mother’s womb. Others live well past the century mark. Living beyond a three-digit figure of age is becoming more and more common as medical science explodes. Cemeteries contain graves of all sizes.

Another way to look at the time it takes to “cross the river” is to consider how quickly or how slowly one’s dying may take. Sometimes life is snuffed out in the blink of an eye in an accident or other unfortunate event. Maybe a heart attack results in a cardiac arrest and it’s all a heartbeat. Such was the case with my mother. After working the night before she got up one morning and died while standing at the sink.

My father-in-law was in the hospital for a few hours before he passed. I’ve seen others suffer at the point of death for weeks, months and more before they crossed the river. We don’t know exactly when it will happen or how long it will take, but we can choose who will accompany us in the crossing, and we can be sure that heaven is on the other side.

Thomas H. Ramsey wrote, “I won’t have to cross Jordan alone. Jesus died all my sins to atone...He’ll be waiting for me...”                       

-Steve Playl may be reached by email.    


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