Tuesday, June 16, 2009
This essay originally appeared in the journal Lumunos (Spring 2009).
A little over seven years ago I made the move from Knoxville, Tennessee, nestled in the gentle arms of the Cumberland Mountains, to Hastings, Nebraska, a small town just holding its own against the harsh extremes of the Great Plains. At first the change was almost too much to bear. My personal narrative just didn't match up with any of the human stories that presented themselves in this place. This is Oregon Trail country, and everywhere along State Highway 6, a road I traveled daily, the landscape offered grim reminders of failure and hardship, of dreams lost along the way toward some brighter future. The graves of newborns, of wives lost to disease, of fathers killed by marauders, were frequent indicators that this was not a forgiving land. I felt lost on the prairie.
But my perspective began to change around March of that first year. I had made friends and was becoming involved in the community, but I still felt like an outsider. However, one morning I found a story I could claim as my own as I walked outside my kitchen door and heard the million-year-old throaty call of the Sand Hill Cranes somewhere in the clouds above me. Over the next several weeks I was introduced to their magnificent migration, a rite of passage that has endured for untold millennia, as thousands of these creatures – and I mean thousands – alighted in the fields along a fifty-mile stretch of the Platte River. I was completely mesmerized and swept up in what I can only describe as a kind of strange faith. It is ironic that the lives and deaths of intrepid westward pioneers had seemed so distant to me, and yet in the enactment of this pre-historic narrative I experienced a kind of primal hope in the recesses of my soul. It was then that I began to make this landscape my home. I began to love it.
I can imagine that my story is not all that different from those who have found themselves in a foreign environment surrounded by menacing uncertainty. We seek out the familiar wherever we can find it, and sometimes we extend our reach beyond our human community. Eventually we find some kind of foothold, and with this a point to begin the faith-work of transforming foreboding space into welcoming place.
I think of the experience that a handful of Israelites must have had in the sixth century BCE as they made their way from their promised land to a makeshift refugee colony on the banks of the Chebar River. Babylon offered nothing of the typical comforts of their city on a hill and they did what was necessary not to assimilate into what they considered to be a wayward culture. While some of the priests busied themselves with new expositions of the law as a hedge against God's further judgment, others found a kind of strange faith and comfort in the mystery of it all, in the profound precariousness of their situation. Uncertainty, they argued in their Wisdom Literature, is precisely what should be expected from a God of surprises, a God who confronts us precisely when we think we've got a good handle on the divine.
While the people of that alien land put their trust in chariots and horses, many Jews felt compelled by their emerging theology to bank on the absurd. They placed their hope in a Creator who is sometimes encountered only in the incomprehensible, in the whirlwind. As Job discovered, the call of this God can at times be less a comfort than a challenge:
Who is this that darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?
…Where were you when I laid the
foundation of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding. (Job 38:2,4)
No one has to tell Nebraskans about whirlwinds. Every spring, shortly after the cranes tire of the Platte and make their way to Canada, the warm gulf air starts getting pushy with the arctic currents descending from the north, resulting in some of the fiercest storms on the planet. (Just last night, in fact -- June 14 -- I witnessed one of our periodic tornadoes skipping through an open cornfield just north of Roseland.) It is then, I find, that the human stories of perseverance and grit are revealed, usually in response to some greenhorn like me lamenting the ferocity of the winds or the force of the hail. "You think that was a storm?" This is how the litany begins, soon to be topped off by, "You should have been here during the Depression!"
In the right company this will be the entrée into a well-rehearsed local history that has been decades in the telling, even by those who did not experience the events themselves. It is true that the One who laid the foundation of the universe did not look kindly on the Great Plains during the 1930s, though the problems were exacerbated by ambitious farmers whose capitalist theology prevented them from seeking out the wisdom of their place. In the absence of life-giving rain, the tilled earth was no match for the harsh prairie winds, and soon ominous dust storms – some as high as a thousand feet – began rolling across the landscape with tragic regularity. Nothing could stay put long enough to set down roots and grow.
Except for the people, many of whom were just a generation or two removed from the tombstones on Highway 6. When I hear about the hardships these folks suffered during the Dust Bowl, it's difficult for me to imagine why anyone wanted to weather the storms. The truth of the matter is that most people had little choice. But when options are limited, a strange faith takes over, and if grace is sufficient, hope and love soon follow.
I have been impressed with the signs of this faith during my visits to some of the small towns that are still trying to make a go of it on the prairie. Many feature an old, red-brick school house rising up out of the landscape like some sacred civic monument, and I'm always surprised to see the dates of dedication that are carved there in stone. 1934. 1936. 1939. This is the hope and love that grow out of strange faith. Precisely at the point when the roiling tides of black dust were threatening the livelihoods of farm families in Glenvil, or Holstein, or any number of the now-forgotten communities on the plains, the people of these villages were pooling their meager resources and sowing in tears what they fully expected to reap in joy.
Now we are facing different storms and I wonder if our sense of uncertainty is a reflection of where we have too long placed our confidence. The health and wealth gospel will surely cease to be good news when all the stuff is gone. Though the masters of the universe have offered so many "words without knowledge," the Creator of the cosmos has laid the firmest foundation for our lives. Affirming this, my strange faith assures me that even as the thin narratives of the pretenders unravel at the seams, I can still expect to see the Sand Hill Cranes returning in March to their beloved Platte. Parents will continue to sow in tears for the sake of their children, and yes, the April winds will wreak their perennial havoc on the Nebraska landscape. But through it all, I do not doubt that the inhabitants of this place will abide by an equally strange hope, that with the ears of their hearts they might yet discern the still small voice of grace speaking from the midst of the whirlwind.
For me the evidence that this voice has been heard for millennia lies in so many facets of my community, and I feel especially called now to take up the challenge of hearing it in all its sonorous tones. There is so much chatter about dreams destroyed and money irretrievably lost that I can be easily drawn into the shared dysfunction of it all. I choose to focus instead on the remarkable wealth I experience in the landscape around me, and on the spirit of God who speaks to me there. It is a matter of strange faith.
This spring I once again tilled the earth and planted my seeds in the hope and love familiar to every gardener. I sowed in joy despite the world's apparent fixation with tears, and I continue to seek God's grace in those places long ignored by many who are now reaping their own whirlwinds.