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The Opening of My Second Week

Posted on Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 06:31PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | CommentsPost a Comment

Now that I’ve got access to the Internet again — at the motel in Burlington, Iowa, where I’m spending the night — it feels like time to report on how the Lord has dealt with me these past few days

The walk out of Fairfield was a scorcher, a foretaste (I think) of what it will be like crossing Illinois and Indiana and Ohio in the heat of the coming summer. The scenery was lovely; the last of the rolling Iowa hill country before the descent into the floodplain of the Mississippi. But I had to pause frequently to let my body cool. I find that overheating is yet another thing that I don’t handle now as well as I did thirty years ago!

Fourteen miles down the road, in the early evening, I’d reached the town of Lockridge: no groceries, no restaurants, and no motels. I did have granola bars and raw granola to keep the pangs of hunger at bay. But this was the first of many nights when I would have to knock on farmhouse doors and ask permission to tent for the night

Which way to go? I inquired of the Lord and chose a direction that felt good. The first farmstead I came to was empty. The second was a compound: one little, well-kept, older farmhouse, plus two trailers. No answer to my knock at the farmhouse, but when I knocked at a trailer, a woman in her twenties came out to talk to me, accompanied by her two pre-school kids. I caught a glimpse of her husband inside

“You’ll have to ask the lady at the farmhouse,” said the woman. “She’s the one that owns all this land.” It came out that the woman I was talking with was the lady-at-the-farmhouse’s granddaughter. In between eager interruptions by her own three-year-old daughter, who was obviously interested in knowing what I was about, we established that the lady at the farmhouse wasn’t home, and the young woman sent me on to the next farmhouse. I gave her a business card, though, so that if anyone asked she could tell them who I was

But even as I was starting a conversation at the next farmhouse, the young woman who had sent me there came down in her car: “My husband says it’s all right. And he has the authority to approve it.” So back I came, and even as I was shaking the hand of the young woman’s husband, the lady of the farmstead came back home, glorious at the seat of the tractor she was driving in a broad-brimmed straw hat and green blouse.

And as it turned out, the lady had no hesitations about letting me have a place to tent, right in her front yard. Not only that, she began bringing out refreshments — first well water, which was delicious (she and I and the little girl sat on a swinging chair together, drinking it down and chatting), and then fresh-picked lettuce and radishes, and finally fresh-picked strawberries and ice cream.

By the time we’d reached the strawberries, the family had dragged over a picnic table from the back of the compound, and we were all seated around it talking together. Yes, people do such things on Memorial Day, which was what this was, but it nevertheless seemed to me extraordinary that these people were doing it, not because it was a Memorial Day family event, but because I had shown up and they were all getting involved.

After the ice cream was gone, the granddaughter and her husband and children kicked a ball around the yard together, obviously enjoying the play, while the matriarch — a sweet woman, truly — confided bits of her family’s history. Horses gamboled in the pasture beyond; the children brought me kittens to admire. The little girl was intensely interested in my tent, which I pointed out was almost certainly smaller than her bedroom. (“That’s because I’m bigger than you,” I explained.)

I was allowed to use the farmhouse bathroom, and invited to join the lady of the farmhouse for breakfast the next day. (I delightedly accepted.) Serenity was thick in the air. It was a blessed evening.

One little turn of events quite surprised me. As the evening drew to a close, the granddaughter remarked to me, “It’s so nice to have someone decent here for a change.” The next morning, the lady of the farmstead explained a little of the background: the young couple had been mixing with bad company for quite some time, and had been in trouble with the law; “He’s still taking classes,” she said, “and she’s finished hers.”

Remembering how happy the young family had seemed the previous evening, I said that it looked to me as if they’d passed through the crisis and now knew which way was up. The old lady muttered, “I hope so.”

I was left with the thought that a simple determination to be faithful to the Spirit that teaches us what is good and right to do, can have truly remarkable effects. This family, that had certainly seemed wonderful enough not to need any help from me, had nonetheless been touched and moved by my unconscious example.

The second day’s walk was a simple crossing of the broad, shallow valley of the Skunk River. Here I could clearly feel the difference between the steeper, younger, Missouri basin, which I’d been crossing in my first week of walking, and the older, slower Mississippi basin, where I was now. The Missouri side has tinges of what becomes the West further on: a touch of harshness that causes people to be attentive to the land and the sky, combined with a lower density of population that makes it easy to feel the land and sky without distraction, and that makes people want to look after each other even if they don’t know each other. In the Mississippi basin that harshness is gone; the land feels lazy, many of the people one sees driving across it seem impatient with it; one begins to see the alienated, urbanized culture of the eastern U.S. thickening up like a ghost taking form on a stage.

This difference has always fascinated me; it tells me much about the degree to which the land will shape us even when we do not live by it directly. Perhaps an ultimate demonstration of this phenomenon is the effect of the harsh badlands and deserts of the Near East on the people who live there; for the Hebrews were attentive to the land and sky to the point of finding endless religious revelation in it, and to them, as to the modern Bedouin people, every stranger was to be treated as sacred.

For me, the entry into Mississippi valley topography coincided with the arrival of rain. The skies were already thick with cloud, and now bands of rain clouds marched across the sky with thick curtains of rain hanging from them. I pulled on my rain gear and kept walking.

Iowa is also gorgeous in rain. The greens become more intense at the same time that their edges are softened by rain-brought mists. The bird songs change. The curtains of rain veil and unveil the vistas across the valleys. It feels like one has moved on to a new and more rhapsodic act in a play.

For me it was near heaven. For the drivers of the cars streaming by me, though, it was grim: rain was pounding on the roofs of their cars, the road was puddled, and they could barely see past their beating wipers. Several stopped to offer me a lift, and seemed quite surprised when I declined.

As soon as the rain stopped, I began to feel that burning in my feet that presages blistering. Part of me wanted to ignore it and keep walking, but that still, small voice that tells us what is right, kept telling me to stop and have a look at it. I stopped and had a look: my wool socks were so wet that water just poured out of them when I twisted them. I changed my socks, and breathed a word of thanks that I had listened.

The last miles that day were rough. What the map I posted last time doesn’t show is that the highway has been rebuilt, with bypasses around all the towns, Mt. Pleasant included. So I trustingly followed the highway, and got taken the long way around the town — oh, I was tired.

But what a special evening that was! I had the chance to meet with eight Friends who collectively represented not one, but two, healthy local Friends churches — Grace (which was on my route) and Salem (which was Grace’s parent community). We met at a restaurant, since Grace Friends Church has no facility of its own. Over dinner I was introduced to the outgoing and incoming pastors of Grace Friends, and to their wives — all obviously fine, plain people.

I told them of my situation and the nature of my walk, and asked for their help in discernment: How could Friends move forward on environmental issues? what is the way to a common Friends environmental testimony, one that we can actually unite behind and that can make a real difference for good?

As you might expect, they didn’t have much to say. We weren’t settled in worship, but gathered around a dinner table, with distractions aplenty, and there was little to keep conversation focused. It’s hard to do good discernment in such circumstances. And these were people who don’t have a whole lot of leisure time to devote to thinking about such matters.

A couple of the people present voiced hesitant, general concerns about good stewardship. One of them balanced this concern with a reference to Revelation and a statement that we couldn’t be sure how long the creation needed to be taken care of before God destroyed it. When it was quite clear that no more would be forthcoming, I gently brought up Revelation 7:3, the passage where the angel of the Lord commands, “Hurt not the earth.” “It seems to me,” I said, “that here God is telling us that we do not have permission to do harm to the earth, not even when things are winding down to the end.” The pastor sitting next to me chimed in with some supporting comments, and it seemed to me that the Friend who had brought up the issue of Revelation was feeling a little better about the whole thing.

I felt that what mattered here was not how much or how little was said, but that the Friends who were present had a time and place and reason to consider this matter as a subject of discernment. There was a palpable rightness to it, that had nothing to do with the size of the fruits it bore. I thought: With grace and faithfulness, this little opportunity might, perhaps, grow into something somewhere down the line. That might be why it needed to happen. I don’t know.

I was told, though, that for some of the people present, the real event was not the effort at environmental discernment, but the chance they were getting to meet and talk with a real live Conservative Friend! Given that I’ve only been a member of a Conservative meeting for two years, I felt rather flattered and inadequate, but I hope I lived up to the challenge okay. For me, I found the opportunity to hang out with such good FUM Friends for an evening, to be very rewarding indeed.

My host and hostess for the night were a treat. The wife was kind, nurturing, very much in touch with everything going on around her — gifts that set me totally at ease in a very healthy-feeling way. The husband, who is a thoroughly devout Christian, has the gift of ministry to a remarkable degree, and said several things that went right to my heart and healed little hurts that I hadn’t known I was carrying. One was a reminder that our perspectives are limited, but God has the infinite perspective — I don’t know why this helped me, but it did! Another was his swift recognition that what I was doing, I was doing, not in my own strength, nor in faith, but in obedience. Simply by saying that, he helped me hold to it.

“How can we help you further?” asked the husband at the end of the meeting — in context, referring to my journey. I said, “If there are ways in which you can help your churches continue the work of corporate discernment on environmental matters, that would be the greatest help you could possibly give me.” He didn’t promise anything, but I felt he would try, as way opens.

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