The first thing people want to know is where you come from – more precisely, what place on this planet – outside of Nebraska – helps to make up the your cells and your soul? A strong sense of place is as innate and instinctive here as my ability to detect any hint of crisis in the voices of my children. There is no separating the soil, the air, the waters of Nebraska from the people who come from the towns and rolling hills we've visited.
My standard line has become, “Well, I'm from Chicago originally, but I've lived in Michigan most of my life and feel most connected to the Upper Peninsula.” They'll nod with tacit approval. My response is acceptable for now, but I have the feeling that if I were here for the long haul there would be more efforts to determine if I really have an unbreakable connection to the place I call home. The fact that I have moved around a lot in my life might undermine that ultimate determination. I think the way Lake Superior has changed me and, in part, made me who I am today may be at least similar to the way the people here feel about the incredible expanses of land that surround us tonight like waterless seas waving and whistling in the winds.
The second thing I'd note is that I've witnessed three men cry in the course of this rural experience. Each time it is somehow connected to relationship with the land – the ability to pass the stewardship and legacy of the land on to children; watching helplessly as the Missouri River rises up and swallows crops row by row until it is 17 miles across and mistaken by passersby for a lake; pouring hard work and vast amounts of expertise into the vocation of farming only to be dismissed and misunderstood by people who may too often make assumptions about what it really means to be feeding the world.
There are always many angles to a story. Nothing is as black and white as we might like to be, especially where people are concerned. Divisiveness, I once heard a wise man from Rwanda say, is born of failures of conversation. We need to have a lot more conversation in this world and start working as hard to understand each other as we do to build fortresses around our opinions.
Finally, many people, particularly those working in rural ministry already, have asked us something like, “What has surprised you most about Nebraska and what has caused you the most concern?” Typically the conversation roles around to the topic of whether or not a seminarian studying and working toward ordained ministry in Chicago, can see himself or herself in a place like Nebraska. A place where, in the more populated parts of the state, your nearest neighbor might be half a mile away. Or you might be an hour away from a place to buy good fresh produce. Or an initial trip to visit a shut-in from your congregation may lead you down unfamiliar, unpaved, unnamed roads where you have to flag down a gravel truck driver to help you figure out where you are and where you are trying to be. A place where stewardship of God's creation comes up in daily conversation at the local filling station/breakfast cafe. A place where breaking bread together happens many times each day. A place where your absence is noticed in real time.
I don't know if it's what the Spirit has in store for me, but my answer to that possibility over the last over the week or so has become, like Samuel in this week's Old Testament reading, “Here I am!” We shall see what happens.
Blessings from the Heartland, Ann