The landscape of our childhood shapes us for good or ill, often in remarkable and unexpected ways. The stories we learn at the dining room table, the faded pictures looking back at us from family albums, the very land on which we walk, teach us as profoundly as any textbook.
I grew up in Oklahoma, a land of red clay and tall thermometers; a city girl, but with pioneer DNA on both sides of the family.
Two sets of great grandparents traveled west in wagons, settling on the high prairie of NW Kansas. It is a vast place; crowned with a sky that bends toward the far horizon. On the high plains, you can see as far as your eyesight and the curvature of the earth will allow. It is a place that teaches a distant gaze and a deep respect for the bigness of God.
It is a land of extremes--hot and arid in the summer; bone-rattling cold in the winter, with a prevailing wind that blows everything into the next county. Henry and Eliza and Clement and Minnie built sod homes outside of Colby on the banks of Prairie Dog Creek, cutting blocks from the earth itself because the land offered up no forests or stones. It is a place that confronts you with your own edges and limits. I always found it to be both wildly beautiful and just a little terrifying.
On the other side of the family, Great Grandfather Albert staked his fortunes in the second Oklahoma Land Run of 1891. When the gun was fired at noon, he raced with 20,000 other gamblers by wagon and horse to claim one of the 160 acre homesteads reserved for the fastest and boldest.
His son, my grandfather, worked as a roustabout in the oil towns of the 1920’s and 30’s --places with names like Slick and Whizbang; boom towns that rose overnight in a farmer’s pasture, then fell into ruins when the pool was tapped and the wells went dry. Nothing was promised; nothing was guaranteed. Each day was a new challenge, a new beginning, a chance for new failure.
It is easy--and tempting, to romanticize the past; to smooth out the rough edges and polish up the struggles to a high gloss. In truth, there was very little romance to living in a sod house, enduring the Dust Bowl, or transforming a wide open oil field into a stable community. It was dirty and inconvenient and incredibly risky. Human life was fragile and ventures failed as often as they thrived. Peace was often elusive; hope was usually gritty and hard edged.
Sometimes you have to leave home, in order to see home with any perspective. As I moved to a new landscape and took part in new stories told in a different voice, I begin to see my own story through a new lens; to appreciate the lessons learned without conscious knowledge. I began to see that the people looking back at me from the pages of the photo albums were people whose lives forever inclined toward hope. Despite their differences in time, location and personal circumstance, they all shared in a common denominator. Faith in the promise of God’s peace was the unbroken thread running through the generations.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
We often feel like the walking wounded; bruised and limping, beaten up by worry, by a loss of dreams, by illness or betrayal or by demons that just won’t lie still. Peace seems far away, as we try to bind up wounds caused by violence, by poverty and injustice. We long for evidence that Christ is present and working in our lives, sustaining us. We thirst for a drink of water from deep, sweet wells.
Not as the world gives, do I give it to you.
We are promised God’s peace. But let us be very clear on this--this peace is definitely not “as the world gives”. This peace is not always comfortable. It does not guarantee security or ease. It does not mean freedom from pain or suffering. It is not an easy peace--it challenges and confronts us. It teaches us a distant gaze and a profound respect for the bigness of God. It is peace that was born in a crushing death and in the echoing silence of an empty tomb. It is the kind of gritty and hard-edged peace that allows us to look on such a death and declare, “This is not the final word.”
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
For many of us, being troubled and afraid is a default setting. Despite our best efforts, we find ourselves hurled, ready or not, into the fierce landscape where everything seems to bite, or burn or sting. We discover that some of the harshest and most solitary places don’t appear on any map and we don’t have to cross the prairie to get there. They lie right at the end of our street or lurk just around the corner in our own home.
These desolate places can be perilous, it is true. But they are also places where something new can be born. They are empty and filled with risk, yet alive with possibility and a strange sense of peace. My ancestors discovered that above all, despite appearances to the contrary, the wilderness was filled with the promise of life. The withered plant, desiccated and dry, has living roots reaching deep into the ground. A handful of soil, baked and brown, blowing in the hot wind, can be filled with thousands of seeds, just waiting for water and a chance to bloom. A land with no supplies for building a home, offers up living stones, cut from the very earth itself.
If we can embrace God’s promises on God’s terms, not ours, we will discover that, although our journey will always be a little bit terrifying, it is also wildly beautiful; although each day is a new challenge, it brings new beginnings; although we will sometimes feel lonely, we will never be alone. The very challenges we try to avoid; the struggles we fear, can teach us just how large God is; that the hollow feeling inside of us is not a void, but the place set aside for the Holy of Holies; the presence of the living God who promises us his peace.
Accepting this promise is not easy. We will always be tempted to smooth out the rough edges, avoid the pain and polish up the struggles to a high gloss. We will always long for a guarantee. We will always hold in tension, the world’s vision of safety and security, and God’s vision of peace. We will always feel just a little bit precarious. Pope Francis reminds us, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk. Whenever we embrace hope and take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”