FEBRUARY 2006: ESSAY
“Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. …To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is.” I lift my eyes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) to gaze at the landscape outside my car window. The wind hums noisily over the roof as my parents and I drive across Midwestern plains on our way to watch my sister run at the national track and field championships. Since we left Michigan, the terrain has subtly transformed itself into the Iowa that the Reverend John Ames describes in Robinson’s book. I watch the breeze skim over the fields, uninterrupted by hills or woods. To me the unembellished flatness of the Iowan landscape seems unexpectedly exotic, a strange simplicity. The sheer expanse of the sky and the free rein of the wind over the fields make the land seem so vulnerable, so completely exposed to the heavens.
I feel somewhat vulnerable myself as I stare at the unobstructed horizon. Graduation from college only a few days behind me, I now face the world on my own. At the end of this summer I will move across country and start graduate school, pioneering into a new life like the settlers that inhabited these prairie plains years ago. I will be exposed to the winds of change, far from family and friends, forging a path into new territory. But for now I am driving through Iowa.
We arrive at the meet and watch some of the events. My sister’s university is in the same division as my alma mater, so I also get a chance to see some friends compete and talk with a few classmates, also recent graduates. In their eyes I see reflected the exuberance and uncertainty that I feel. We’re excited about our future, while wondering what that future will look like. What stories, I wonder, will we soon begin to write?
While I stand on the verge of a new chapter in my own life, this trip to Iowa reminds me of chapters that have gone before. A couple hours’ drive from here is a special place in my family’s story: the first church my grandfather served as a pastor. He and my grandmother moved there just after he graduated from seminary, she only a few years out of college. Since it’s so close by, my parents and I decide to pay a visit to our history.
The car turns off the long country road into a small parking lot and comes to a stop. For a moment the engine idles, then turns off, leaving only the sound of the wind as it howls across the prairie. It’s late May, the end of Eastertide in the church year.Though we celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the tomb over a month ago, the new life of the corn crop here has only just begun to pierce the dusty ground with sprouts of green. Without the tall stalks of grain, nothing blocks the wind as it polishes the earth’s exposed surface.
Nothing except Wright Church. I look across the blacktop to a simple white building, its steeple rising into the wide sky. The church’s silhouette is the solitary interruption in that expanse of celestial blue, a single vertical edifice surrounded by flat cornfields.
I open the glass door and step into a stillness intensified by the absence of the gusts that still wail outside. An expectant sleepiness hovers here; the sanctuary rests, anticipating the weekly celebration that will come on Sunday.
With reverence for the quiet and a curious sense of expectation, I explore the church. In the narthex I glance up and find the artifact I’ve been looking for. A framed placard on the wall reads “Pastors of Wright Church,” and there he is, third row from the bottom: “Leonard Hofman, 1951-1954.” My grandfather’s face gazes at me from twentythree years of age–only one more than my twenty-two. He and Grandma came here to this wind-whipped land, inhabited this corner of prairie, and led this church with scarcely more days under their belts than I have tucked under my own.
What was life like here for my grandparents, young newlyweds on their first venture away from home? As I anticipate my own cross-country move, I can imagine their excitement over setting out on their own. I guess that they felt a thrill, both invigorating and terrifying, at the thought of such independence. What did this new life in rural Iowa hold for them? How exposed they must have felt, here on the open plains.
I wonder if my grandfather, as he met with his elders (rightly called, since they were all about fifty years his senior), expected someone to realize that he was just a kid, and call his bluff: “Alright, son, you’ve had your fun playing preacher. Now let a grown-up take it from here.” It must have been daunting–at least at first–to look out at the congregation every Sunday. But he did it; he wasn’t playing preacher. The people of the surrounding farms and towns looked to him as their minister. When he speaks of Wright Church now, he recalls those years fondly, as a time when he made great friends and learned much from them.
What must my grandmother have felt, a city girl from Grand Rapids keeping house in a small parsonage with no near neighbors?
My grandfather’s face gazes at me from twenty-three years of age–only one more than my twenty-two. He and Grandma came here to this windwhipped land and led this church with scarcely more days under their belts than I have tucked under my own.
It must have been a shock for her to leave rows of dark brick buildings and a skyline of trees and chimneys for rows of maize and an uninterrupted horizon. All at once she was a minister’s wife, soon to be a mother for the first time, and she could look for miles out her kitchen window without seeing another home. Was she lonely? No, I think not: Grandpa’s study was there in the house, and I believe that even at that early point in their marriage they were perfect company for one another.I imagine, too, that ladies from the congregation called on my grandma. They would come to chat and to coo over her baby girl, my mother, the fourteenth child born in the brand-new hospital in nearby Belmond. At that time, Iowa farmland was all little Laurie knew. When my grandparents took their car to the nearest town with electric street lamps, she would exclaim, “Lights! Lights!”
The sight of those rare lamps merited shouts because, on the isolated prairie, the nights were dark. The hours after sunset must have brought new insight to the way my grandparents read John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Glancing out their window, they could witness Christ’s metaphor; they could watch the small glow of their porch light fade into the complete, uncompromising shadow of night.
And yet, that blackness must have yielded a breathtaking array of stars in the heavens. I imagine that those stars gave them the strength to let their own lights shine, the glimmers of grace that filled their lives with joy when they came to their first church.
Furthermore, as Robinson’s Reverend Ames observes, on the prairie there is nothing to delay or obstruct the inevitable break of dawn. With every dark night there was the assurance that, the next morning, the sun my grandparents had seen set the day before would rise gloriously again over the fields. As my grandfather and my grandmother passed the days in the rhythm of all those sunsets and sunrises, they lived out a vocation illuminated by a constant light of faith. God was in the wind, the stars, and the sun, polishing them with his providence and enriching them with exposure to a new place.
I stand in that place now, in the sanctuary of Wright Church, where my grandfather preached. Whenever I enter a church in the middle of the week, I have difficulty imagining it filled with chattering worshipers on Sunday. There is no quiet like that of a sanctuary on a weekday afternoon, when the dim light filtering through stained glass and the silence of the still organ shroud the pews in perpetual dusk. The room is patiently timeless as it waits for the Sabbath.
I take the scene as a hushed metaphor for life between the first and second comings of Christ. As this building sleeps between Sunday and Sunday, we wait between Easter and Revelation. But we don’t merely wait; we live. Amid this in-between-ness, sustained by the Holy Spirit, we write the stories of our lives– our family histories. In the eerie hush of Wright Church lie my mother’s baptism and other events I wasn’t yet alive to see, shelved away by the years like rare books in the musty recesses of a vast library, waiting for revelation, waiting to be read. I know that this church will come alive with music and worshipers in a few days, but right now I’m pulling it down like an album from the annals of memory.
Back in the car, for a while I cannot tear my eyes from the pancake-flat landscape and the enormous sky as we put cornfield upon cornfield between ourselves and Wright Church. Finally, I pick up my book again. John Ames says: “This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven–one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it.”
So here we are, turning over in Pentecost. Our lives revolve in a state of Holy Saturday, between the cross and the rolling back of the clouds, between the fulfillment of God’s promise and its final realization. Clinging to the Holy Spirit, we tell and retell the story of God’s faithfulness in our lives. We roll through sun and shadow, exposed to the wind, the heat of day and the dark of night, and the continuous change of the world that rotates around us. And yet it is as if we were sitting still in a quiet sanctuary, waiting for the worshipers to come and for our memories to be reborn.