Back Home in a Place That Wasn’t

Some memories live in your body, whether you know it or not.

This is especially true for strong emotions—love and fear and humiliation. I usually feel all three of these every time one of my college friends posts a throwback picture of me on social media.

Anything can trigger one of these visceral memories: a word, a story, a song. I imagine that’s why some of us love oldies stations, and some of us detest them. Remember your Billy Joel: “The good old days weren’t always good.” At least not for everybody.

My boys may not remember what they did on their first trip to Rapid City. But I hope they remember that it was a good day, and that we were together.

My boys may not remember what they did on their first trip to Rapid City. But I hope they remember that it was a good day, and that we were together.

That was my song this weekend on the way to Rapid City, SD, where Denise and I spent two years early in our marriage. We have some shared memories and friends, but our individual experiences were quite different. She remembers the Black Hills as a place of beauty and tranquility. I remember professional chaos, church tension, and a deep personal loneliness.

All of this came flooding back to me as we pulled off the interstate into town. I had blocked much of my time there, right down to geography. Denise had to give me directions to every place we went. But I still felt many of those memories, especially as we passed the school where I spent my two most difficult years of ministry. I must have clamped down on the steering wheel, because my forearms were sore the next day.

Then I remembered something I didn’t know I remembered, at another place I’d largely forgotten.

As we drove toward Storm Mountain Center, a different kind of remembering came over me. I could feel the tension draining from my shoulders as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. After a fifteen-minute conversation with Scott, the longtime camp director, I was as happy and relaxed as I’d been in years.

Part of that feeling, I know, comes from the honeymoon emotions of a new job. But I’m also sure that much of my relief and optimism comes from those decade old memories that were wired into my skin. When I was at my lowest points, I would come to Storm Mountain to hike or cut wood or just find a place to sit. My body still recognized it as a place where things got better, even if my mind was slower to process those feelings.

Maya Angelou famously said that people will forget what you say and do, but that they will never forget the way you made them feel. I shudder a bit to apply that to my prior life in Rapid City. It was not the place where I did my best pastoral work.

But returning to Storm recasts some of those painful memories, and it gives me hope. Perhaps there are other good memories waiting for me elsewhere in those hills, and perhaps the same resides in old settings and relationships from other places we’ve lived. I love finding unexpected happy memories.

Those precious things are already sown, however. I can’t go back in time and plant more, good or bad. They have grown into fruit trees or thorn bushes, and I can’t change their character now.

The task for today is to plant good seeds, both for myself and for those I encounter. I may never know the fruits of the planting, but I know that people will remember the way I made them feel. And if I can be part of welcoming someone, someday back to a place they didn’t know was home, then I’ll have repaid a part of what has been given to me.

 

Be(liev)ing the Good

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Not if you’re paying attention.

Perhaps that’s an ungrateful thing to say. Where I live and work, it is sunny and 74 degrees. Student athletes moved in yesterday, so the campus is alive with activity for the first time in months. Despite a few inevitable grumbles and annoyances, I have a truly terrific life.

But I can’t stop thinking about places where things aren’t wonderful at all—places like Iraq and Honduras and Gaza and Sierra Leone, where people are desperate and hopeless. I’ve read accounts of children being murdered by religious fanatics. I’ve heard news reports of the ebola epidemic. I’ve seen pictures of children who, unaccompanied, have traveled 2200 miles from home, only to be screamed at by anti-immigration zealots at the US border.

It’s all second-hand. It’s a long way away. But it’s the same world as mine. I share this planet with those who are killing and those who are dying. Some days I can shake that fact.

Today, not so much.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

I know these sort of things have happened before. Happen all the time, when you take the long view of human history. Assyrian pillage. Roman oppression. Black Death. Spanish Flu. Nazis. Khmer Rouge. Innumerable thousands of catastrophes. It occurs to me that believing in a loving God in the face of it all boils down to a stubborn act of will.

To pile on even further, I am painfully aware that all of these atrocities belong in my NADTICDAI file, where I store things I have no way to deal with. I’ve filed them and gone about my day, and how have I spent my time? Smiling at students. Giving polite directions. Saying my prayers. Being nice.

And how does that address the problems?

It doesn’t.

NADTICDAI. Not a Damn Thing I Can Do About It.

I might as well sit in my corner and pout.

Which is where this line of thinking takes me. Which is a place I know I can’t go. Not and still live out the faith I profess.

I will likely never be able to address any of the world’s big problems directly, at least not on a large scale. I can look for ways to help, of course, and I am bound by creed to do all the good I can, whenever and however the opportunity presents itself. But in a realistic sense, I doubt I will ever make a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, or that I’ll have the knowledge to treat an ebola patient, or that I’ll negotiate a truce in the Holy Land. Whether because of previous choices or providence or some cocktail thereof, these are not courses available to me.

But I have to live somewhere. And I have to live some way.

At Dakota Wesleyan, I see people wearing bright blue shirts that say “Believe there is good in the world.” But the text is highlighted in such a way as to embed a second message. “Be the good in the world.”

This afternoon, when I grudgingly approached my devotional reading, the opening prayer made me angry. It says:

“Lord Jesus Christ, hasten the day when all of your people may know the joy, peace, and harmony of your kingdom. Grant unto me this day the power to live within your kingdom. In the name of Christ. Amen” (from “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck).

It seemed at first like such a stupid thing, to be so reduced by scope and geography that I can respond to urgent suffering with a trite prayer for joy and peace and so forth.

But as I think more about it, the prayer isn’t trite. It is an act of humility, admitting my limitations. At the same time, it is an act of faith, placing broken hearts and a broken world in God’s loving hands.

Believe there is good in the world.

And maybe what I do in my own context today matters too. Maybe there are minor tragedies to be averted through simple human kindness. Maybe my actions among the people I meet today will produce someone, even five or six degrees down the line, who does have direct impact in a matter of global importance. No way to know. Jesus never promised knowing. He did say love your neighbors.

Be the good in the world.

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Maybe it never is.

But it’s still a day to live in the world, and to live well in it. It is a day for prayers and service, however small, and for simple trust in a God who has seen it all and has not turned away.