I wrote this back in late April 1998. It was published in the Great Plains News of July 15, 1998. I was reminded of it by a conversation with a friend while we were camping this past weekend, and then by a video today on Facebook. (http://vimeo.com/73014200). I share it here both so I can link to it, but also because wherever you live..I believe the same is true there as well….
What Does God See in Western Kansas?
A sage has said, “God must love the common man because he made so many of them.” God must love western Kansas. Because he made so much of it. As I drove home from Ashland to Garden City last night I could see why God loves western Kansas.
The sky stretches on for miles, you can see hundreds of miles of horizon, unbroken by mountains or ocean or even trees. You can see so much sky. Up close the hawks make lazy circles above the highway, a pheasant hen rises out of the grass along the road; in the distance dark clouds billow up against the blueness of the sky. As I drove the dark reds and golds and purples of sunset glowed through the clouds. But that’s not what God loves about western Kansas.
I drove along highways 160, 23 and 50 with the roll of hills and valleys, green pastures rolling up and down suddenly broken by a ravine of brick red rock. The blowing green carpets of wheat, the endless pastures with cattle and bison. Later will come the sunflowers borders along the highway, the combines traversing the fields. Dry ravines and the Arkansas River flowing freely again. Jackrabbits sitting along the road, a coyote darting across just at the farthest extreme of my headlights. The shape of a deer lumbering away from the highway. Other times, if you look closely across the pastures you may see a small herd of antelope. Mice, fox, all make their way in front of my car. But none of them will gather round the throne of God throughout all the ages –none of them is the reason God loves western Kansas.
I stop to gather some rocks for my wife’s landscaping. And I hear the grinding of a windmill and water pouring from the pump. Hour after hour the wind blows. Year after year the windmill turns and water is brought from somewhere down deep in the ground. I marvel at the thousands of cattle in the feedyards. There is always a haze over the feedyards, dust from the tramping of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of cattle in the feedyards. A haze of dust and dung. A choking dust, an acrid smell that burns your nose. But those cattle will feed a nation. No, those cattle will feed the world. Those cattle will end up on New York street corners and in Japanese homes. They will be the Sunday pot roast in Ohio and in restaurants in Europe. But Jesus did not die for cattle. That is not why God loves western Kansas.
The lights over the feedyards are hazy and clouded by dust. But other lights shine brightly. As it darkens, farm yard lights begin to blink on. Some close together. Others, miles and miles apart. Grain elevators stand as markers every 10 miles or so, bathed in spotlights like monuments. And the lights continue into the sky. The clouds of sunset have darkened into storm clouds. Sheets of lightning pulse along the horizon first in one place and then in another. Because nothing stands in its way you can see every pulse. Then streaks of lightning, jagged and severe follow, reaching from the sky down to someplace below. Finally, coming over the ridge, with the valley that Garden City sits in before me, the lights of Garden City sparkle like a harbor town. The lights appear more like lights of the city reflecting off the water on a bay. The night is dark. Very dark. The lights show how dark the night really is by contrast. But the dark and the light are not the reason God loves western Kansas.
What does God love about western Kansas?
A wiry 90-year old man, one of five generations on this land, still out on the tractor, putting out the crop and wondering about death –what really happens after death?
A family who escaped from Vietnam, finally reunited in a strange and different place. At first all the adults work in the beef plants, but soon a shop is opened, skills learned in Asia find an application in this new place. The children attend school and become different from the children back in Vietnam. Now this is home. But there are worries about peace of mind, forgiveness, eternal life, that Buddha can not bring.
Where else in the world could you go to an American farm and find German-speaking Mexican Mennonites working as hired help?
A young father of five, still in his twenties, hoping to open his own tool and die company, working two jobs in order to build a future for himself and his family.
Lots of Germans settled in this area –not as many as around Hays, Ellis, Marienthal. But German families, many from Russia came to make a life. Everyone here has roots someplace else. No one, except the Indians can claim roots here longer than 125 years. And even the American Indians traveled through this place.
A teenage boy, a football player “built like a tractor, but runs like a deer”. He quietly asks: “Why does God say bedding my girlfriend is wrong?”
A single mother from El Salvador, with children by a husband long gone, cleans a building by night, works processing beef by day and tries to provide a home for her children. She wants them to know right from wrong. She wants them to know love. But is there someone who cares enough to show them?
Some passing through; some here for generations. Some here to find a break, seeing it as an opportunity; some see being here as a prison, longing only to see it in a rearview mirror.
A former nurse and farm wife is now cared for by others in the nursing home. Hands that cared for others, now gnarled slowly push her wheel chair. Pictures of the dustbowl days hang in her nursing home room. She survived then, but where is the hope in life now?
A mother with adult children, crippled by arthritis and with a body broken by years of abuse by drinking. But now she brings everyone she meets to the only man who could sober her up –a man on a cross.
What does God see in western Kansas? Oh, he sees the prairie and the pastures, the bison and the wheat. And I imagine he looks down and smiles at his creation. He sees the sunsets and the dry ravines. But that is not what he loves about western Kansas. Jesus did not die for cattle. God sees men and women. Men and women with hopes and dreams, fears and frailties. Children and youth who want to know what is real, what is permanent, in a society that is fast changing. God sees people who know too little about grace. Too little of acceptance by others. What does God see in an area where many only see emptiness and wind, cattle smell and little rain. God sees men and women, children and youth. What do I see? What do you see?
“But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Cal Habig, April 25, 1998