So I drove across the lower half of the state of Nebraska today. The Great Plains Annual Conference has a yearly meeting in January entitled “Orders and Fellowship” and we gather at various places around the states of Kansas and Nebraska to learn from guest speakers, connect with colleagues, and be reminded that we live and work in a region that covers a whole lot of square mileage. Almena, where I grew up, is about an hour and fifteen minutes south and a little farther west than here. Normally when I drive this direction this far I can count on some home cooking at my Mom and Dad’s, and at least one good game of pick-up basketball with my three very gifted great nephews (why yes, that does make me a GREAT aunt, thanks for asking *snort*). But not this time. This time as I pointed my car west, my windshield time was filled with reflection about the start of a new year, wondering what the days ahead will bring, and marveling a bit about the journey that takes us from where we begin our lives to where we are now, and all the different stops we have along the way.
Certainly for United Methodist pastors, those stops are often the places where we have been sent in a system known as itineracy – but my guess is most all of us have had different stops along the way of our lives at different times for different reasons. In the gospel lesson last Sunday, Nathanael asks Philip if anything good can come from Nazareth when Philip is inviting him to come and meet Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth. That, to me, was an invitation to ask various ones of you who gathered for worship the places where you started your journey and/or “grew up”. And to be honest, even I was wonderfully surprised at how many different places we listed from which we had come. I wish I had someone writing down all the different states and countries various ones of you listed from all the different services. Then I asked each of you, in various ways, the question that Nathanael asked, i.e., can anything good come from wherever you named? And while we did laugh and have a good time, it was a rather difficult and awkward question to both ask and answer.
If you think about all the places you’ve ever lived, from birth to now, and the different parts of your life you lived there, what did you learn in each place? Some of you have probably lived most of your life very near where you were born, what would be two or three of the most important things you would name that you learned there? Have you lived anywhere else? And if you did what brought you back? Others of you have perhaps not lived anywhere near where you spent most of your growing up years, but what did you learn there that has stayed with you all the other places you’ve ever been? Even where you are now? What are two or three things you’ve learned at the different stops you’ve had along the way? The geography probably has less to do with our learning than the situations we have faced and our response to them. And yet my guess is that where you were had something to do with the situations you faced, perhaps struggled to come through, and have helped define who and even where you are now.
When I first moved to Kansas City to attend seminary, I remember how homesick I became. Certainly for my family and friends, but also for the wide open spaces and the ability to see the horizon and the sun meet every evening. That longing certainly lessened, but as I made my way across not the same but very familiar terrain this afternoon, the comfort in those wide open spaces settled back around me. I’ve often thought there is probably something about these wide open spaces that allowed my imagination to develop, that engaged the poetic part of my spirit, and that helped me believe that no problem is without a possible resolution if you allow the sky to be the limit! Perhaps it’s easier to imagine outside the box when there really wasn’t a box around any of the land or sky or trees or hills or creeks or ponds or lakes or streams and yes, there’s some of all of that out here – maybe not a lot in some places, but some!
My guess is if you were to do the same thing, you would be able to tell me what those places from which you came have given you that allows you to be the person you are today doing the things you’re doing and offering to the world the gifts that God first gave you.
So let me now certainly answer that weirdly awkward question that, at least for some of you, focused the attention of the congregation on you for a few whiles on Sunday. Can anything good come from wherever it is you started your journey and grew? OF COURSE something good came from all those places because YOU did! I know, I know, that’s not really how we think about our lives – that something good came from those places because we did. But I believe that’s exactly how God looks at it. Remember that whole Genesis scripture story where it says that God saw all that God created and called it GOOD! So there you go! I’m not making this stuff up or looking at life with rose-colored glasses, well mostly. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect or the places from which we have come offered us a perfect way to grow and develop, but it does mean that in our imperfections and broken places, we’ve had the opportunity and I believe more often than not, used the opportunity to become wiser and deeper and more kind.
What do you do when you have a five hour drive across the southern part of Nebraska? Especially after you get west of Lincoln? You smile, and you grin, and maybe even laugh a little at the memories of convincing unsuspecting people to go snipe hunting or cow-tipping. And you say a few prayers of thanks for the people and the places from which you learned the easy things, and the hard things, and the things that have created the deep places in your life from which you live and love and serve. And maybe that’s where God reminds us that grace lives in us in all the places from which we come!