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By the mid-1800s the trail-head of the Santa Fe Trail had moved from its original location in Franklin all the way to Independence and Westport, the new jumping off places to the west. All that commerce and migration up and down the great trails was curtailed during the time of the Civil War. Later, overland travel by wagon was replaced by the Intercontinental railroads. But in its heyday thousands left Independence and Westport and took the great trails west, whether for commerce to Santa Fe or to the gold fields of California, or as immigrants to Oregon, California and Utah.

Great stories and lore emerged from that chaotic and rich time and perhaps one of the most memorable was that of the notorious Wind Wagon.

As reported in local newspapers of the time, a Mr. Thomas developed a Wind Wagon fully equipped with sails. After some preliminary experimentation, Thomas returned to secure passengers for the journey across the prairies. Evidently Thomas contracted with a wagon builder, Robinson, Crook & Co of Independence, to create the fleet. Whether true or not, the idea for the special wagon was attributed to the seafaring experience of Mr. Thomas, who longed to bring his sailing experience to the sea of grasses.

Many different records of the time report the Wind Wagon’s success in travel, the way it shocked native Americans as it rolled by, the time it made with its enormous frame and wind-filled sails. What ultimately happened to the Wind Wagon project has been lost in the annals of history, but one of the last accounts states that two Wind Wagon adventurers prepared their wagon for a morning departure but without thinking to reef the sails. In the morning all they discovered were uprooted stakes and wagon tracks. The two frustrated mariners set out on horse back to run down the truant wagon, but there is no record of them having ever found it.

My favorite account comes from Judge William R. Bernard of Westport. They events in question transpired in 1853, though he did not tell the story until 1910. That is a mighty interval between event and telling, an interval in which a story may ferment mightily, but we can catch the essence of it:

It was in 1853 that a device called the Wind Wagon was invented by a man known as “Wind Wagon Thomas.” If he had any other name no one knew it. He had been a sailor. He rigged a small wagon as a trial model. The model was a success and Thomas sailed out on the prairie as far as Council Grove, Kansas. With this success the Westport and Santa Fe Overland Navigation Company was formed, to build a fleet of the Wind Wagons.

In due course of time the first Wind Wagon was completed and a mammoth vehicle it was! Wheels 12 feet in diameter, with hubs as big as barrels, length 25 feet. Two yokes of oxen towed it out about three miles to open prairie. All the stock-holders but one and a number of  prominent citizens embarked when its trial run was made. It was an even greater success than the first one, and the way the cumbersome looking rig scooted over gullies and small hillocks was surprising.

Thomas, intoxicated by his success, began a course of fancy navigating not in the catalog of prairie sailing. A sudden veering of the wind while Thomas was tacking, brought catastrophe. The wagon halted and then started backward at a speed never before attained, and the steering mechanism became deranged. Faster and faster went the Wind Wagon propelled by a freshening breeze and guided by whimsical fancy.

Dr. Parker, the only stock-holder not aboard, followed  on a riding mule as fast as possible, fearing his professional services would be needed. The steering mechanism became locked, and the vehicle started on a circle about one mile in diameter. As the vehicle gathered momentum in its circular flight, the terror-stricken stock-holders started to abandon ship, which strewed prominent citizens in its wake. All except Thomas, who remained at the helm until a stronger quartering wind sent the outfit careening into a ten-rail stake-and-rider fence near Turkey Creek, collapsing the wagon. We fished Thomas out of the wreckage, virtually uninjured.

Dr. Parker recalls the incident well: “Could that wagon go! I had one of the best saddle-mules in the country and he could not hold a candle to that wagon.”

(Wind Wagon story recorded in Old Westport by William A. Goff)

As a recent addict to the series Call the Midwife, I believe I have witnessed more life-like portrayals of labor and childbirth in several seasons than all the combined moments of  my entire life. We are spared no details – the breaking of the water, the long, often racking labor pains, impasses along the way, the final moments of exit, the arrival, cutting the cord, and if healthy a joyful entrance into the waiting arms of mother. The Midwife is combination cheerleader, steady presence, diagnostician, and giver of physical aid. We might have three full deliveries in one episode.

This brought to mind the apostle Paul’s use of the birth process to describe the becoming, the unfolding of the universe. He writes in his most mature and latest letter to the  Romans:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the our adoption … (Romans 8:22-23)

Though Paul was speaking in a universal, cosmic sense – the entire cosmos would be redeemed and made whole through a great birth – it applies, I believe, on the micro level as well.

Isn’t it true that we all come to powerful junctures of new birthing, a pregnancy of the spirit preceded by a long period of gestation and then an arduous labor? Not one of us have missed the opportunity for these transitions, often rocky transitions, that cause us to outwardly and inwardly groan, waiting for the new to come. These births come in many forms and they comprise the terrain of our life stories. The pregnancies have sometimes surprised us. And the labor is frequently long and excruciating. If we were so blessed, we were assisted by midwives who accompanied us through the passage.

I believe that we have collective, social experiences of pregnancy, labor and new birth as well. We stand in a juncture between the known and familiar and unknown and sometimes terrifying. These are turning point moments and destiny is written with them.

Since the election of 2016, the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the succession of national events that have transpired as a result, we have been in the throes of a powerful labor. What is at stake is no less than democracy itself, something that is always very fragile. Many of the hard-won accomplishments of the past have been jeopardized. An already polarized and divided social fabric has been torn all the more. Fear has stalked our nation’s highways and byways. We have groaned inwardly and outwardly waiting for redemption.

The labor pains have been intense in what has become perhaps the most defining era since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is easy to lose heart in such a moment, to give up hope, to be overwhelmed by the uncertainty and pain. But now may be the groaning of hope, of waiting for redemption, and the last gasp of mighty forces that want to drag us back into the womb of the bad old days.

This has been a long pregnancy. We experienced some false labor pains along the way. Our patience wore thin and the birth couldn’t come soon enough.  Nevertheless, we live in hope. We hope we will emerge alive and with all our parts working. We hope that the new collective body of our country will be equipped – after enduring the trauma of the birth canal – for the challenges of a new day, not an old day. Our groaning will turn into rejoicing, the celebration of a new day, a day full of new challenges, hard work and a backward glance toward the waters through which we passed that more than once threatened to drown us.

 

Columbia, Missouri has recently experienced its own moment of clarity. At least some have.

One of the conservative mega churches in our city just presented one aspect of its version of Christian anthropology – its understanding of the human being in the light of their theology. That one aspect had to do with human sexuality, gender and identity. In particular they claimed that one correct “Biblical” interpretation has defined hetero-normative relationships as the only faithful expression of personhood and sexuality that is pleasing to God. Of course, said they, we love and welcome you. It’s just that your true freedom will be found in changing who you are and Jesus can do that for you. And they threw in a few other tidbits that related suicide to people who made a big oops an physically transitioned to a new identity only to find it was a mistake.

The response by the larger community was immediate and clear: We do not share your anthropology. And you will no longer be the sponsor of our various community organizations and events because we can’t be connected to you and your worldview.

Some members of that church tried to spin this as a Christ-and-Culture conflict: As you know the ways of Christ are not always in sync with the ways of the world. True enough, they aren’t. But this was not that. This church presumed to have some monopoly on the one right interpretation of scripture and presumed to present the one, clear “Biblical” view. I have news for them. There is more than one Christian view. And their Biblical interpretation is one version among many.

To be clear, in the canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures, that collection, that library of religious voices scattered across the centuries, we have received a panorama of “sexualities.” To say otherwise is a tacit admission that the book has not been read, not all of it. And to read those texts as though they are not conditioned by the culture and times out of which they arose is just silly.

Though I do not believe that the larger culture around us has some automatic correct read on the nature of the human being, our destiny and the moral structures of the universe – it frequently proves that it does not – on this score, on the move toward understanding and accepting the varieties of human sexual orientation and identity, the insight and wisdom of most of the culture is outpacing certain segments of entrenched Christianity.

I’m telling you, for rank and file youth, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings this issue is over, done, settled. And the churches that insist that to be a Christian in the 21st century requires adopting a 1st century worldview will be deposited in the dustbin of history. It’s already happening. Today.

There is still time to have a lively conversation about human sexuality and faith. But a real conversation won’t be defined as traditionalists throwing rocks of truth into the pond of culture. Because if that’s all there is the pond will be no larger than a rain puddle. And what’s more, no one will notice or care.

How do I begin? I don’t normally dwell on the dark side – manifested evil, hauntings, possessions, et al. I just don’t. My focus is entirely elsewhere. Nevertheless, my life experience includes such diverse sharing with so many people, such a vast variety of human experience, that this dimension has presented itself to me along way, almost as a matter of course. Precisely because I wasn’t seeking it, the various phenomena I encountered usually surprised and frequently shocked me.

For me the most compelling stories have also come from people who were not looking for or seeking this kind of experience. They often had a one-off, a one-time experience rather than a repeating one. Though some did have repeating experiences.

I recently had a deep conversation with one of the most non-religious people I’ve ever met. Her only influence was a father who dabbled in astrology.

When she was a young teen she tragically lost an older brother in an accident. It shattered their already fragile family. And once, when a few of her friends were at the house with no one else around, they pulled out a Ouija Board, formed a circle around it, and started playing with the connections. She thought nothing more about it.

That night, when she was in her bed, before she fell asleep, the room became cold and a thick darkness entered and descended upon her, falling over her like a ton of bricks, pinning her to the bed. She could barely breathe. She couldn’t move. Though she had no experience with such things she knew that this was more evil than anything she had ever known.

Out of her terror she grabbed onto a phrase and began repeating it over and over again: “I am a child of God, I am a child of God, I am a child of God …” She repeated that for what seemed to be an eternity until the dark force lifted and left.

She said, “I’m not religious. I have no idea where those words came from. I never talk that way. Nobody around me talks that way. But the words just came into my mouth, like I knew them by heart.”

It never did happen again, she said. And she moved out of that room and never went back. She also stays several paces away from anything that even looks occultish. It’s too dark, powerful, menacing, and … real.

What was left with her was that one phrase, “I am a child of God.” It’s like it imprinted on her soul. She may not have her shit together and she may not be any more religious than before, but there is – a few words attached to a reality that placed itself between her and the crushing darkness with no name.

Between what was and what comes next

Once during my seminary career I attended a worship service and a guy named Joey Jeter was preaching. I didn’t really know him. Others did, but being from a different part of the country, I was generally clueless. Here was a young man fresh from the Peace Corps heading off to do his doctoral work. What I did notice, in addition to the fact that at that time he wore bangs down his forehead cut straight across? Even today I remember that he preached from Psalm 25: “In you, O Lord, we put our trust. Do not let us be put to shame.” Where Joey took us was precisely to the places in our national life where we would indeed feel the shame most. And he kept asking, again and again, “Do not let us be put to shame?” It was a powerful moment for hope to rise up out of those particular ashes. It still is. Before we knew it he was heading to Brite Divinity school to become the professor of Homiletics.

There are too many stories about Joey to remember them all. We could tell of surprise appearances in General Assemblies, provocative sermon series from which everyone borrowed, students who benefited from his unusual patience, and most of us  who weren’t worthy to untie this homiletical sandals.

Then there was his compassion, his loyalty. He shared concern for his friends who passed through hard times. He bled for preachers who were routinely and often unfairly beaten up by congregations. I know Joey was of personal help to me with one aspect of my doctoral work. He once reached out to me at just the right moment when I really needed some support. You can add to all this with hundreds of other examples.

But what I really want to share is a story, one story only.

Some years ago I was attending a conference in Santa Fe and Joey was the presenter. He was addressing generational shifts and  uniqueness. And during one of our free afternoons Joey and some of his friends determined that we would make the relatively short trek down to the old town, Madrid, New Mexico.

In its heyday, Madrid was a mining town. But later, long after the mines had played out and the place turned into a ghost town, it was taken over by a band of hippie artists who transformed Madrid into a center for the arts. It thrived. What a great place to go for an outing, down to Madrid. So we piled into our cars and headed out across the high desert.

Just as we were pulling into Madrid we spied a huge banner that stretched all the way across the main street, from one side to the other:

Madrid Chile Festival

Now really, how good can it get? Imagine: We decide on the fly just to drive to Madrid for an ordinary drop in visit, and what’s happening? A Chile Festival. The Tex-Mex gods were smiling on us. The whole decorated town was ready for guests. Joey waxed eloquently about the synchronicity of the whole thing: Sometimes you just decide to go somewhere and there’s more waiting than you expected.

I was driving and as I turned into what appeared to be the first parking lot on the right, I rolled down my window and the attendant greeted me. He was fairly gruff but I smiled and asked if this was the right place to park. He asked, “Are you with the cast?” I said no, that I didn’t know anything about a cast. What cast? And he, somewhat perturbed, answered, “The cast of the movie. If you’re not in the cast you have to park on down there,” gesturing to several streets over.

The reason that he asked if we were part of the cast is because we had stumbled onto a movie set. The Chile Festival was part of the set for a movie. Everything was made to look like a real town – the storefronts, imaginary Post Office, Saloon, shops. But what movie? Madrid, New Mexico, had just been transformed into the set of the movie Wild Hogs.

Actors like John Travolta, William Macy, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, Ray Liotta, and Peter Fonda roamed the streets. We were given strict instructions not to talk to the actors. Since everything was shut down for filming there were only a few real shops open. One of those was the saloon, which actually was a real functioning bar behind the saloon facade and it was open for business. At that, Joey made an announcement that held the ring of absolute certainty and gravitas: “In times like these there is only one thing to do, one thing to make the best of a situation just like this. To the saloon!”

We were persuaded. We had never heard truer words. And so we spent much of the imaginary Chile Festival of Wild Hogs in the town saloon. And I hear Madrid has never been quite the same.

Thanks, Joey. Not just for that. But for the thousand, unmentioned, half-remembered things that were for you simply, gracefully, all in a day’s work.

Living in the Hard Places

Posted: July 30, 2019 in Uncategorized
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Our guest blogger is Nita Gilger – educator, writer, sojourner in the wide open spaces.

The best of Broadway may find its greatest challenge from a funny little bird. Killdeer birds are incredible actors. Because the killdeer eggs are so vulnerable and exposed, the adult killdeer birds have some well-practiced antics to pull predators away from their nests. Their nests are often very visible in a gravel area or shallow grass. Killdeers have a shrill and loud call as they run away from the nest with the broken wing ploy. If the predator buys the drama of feigned injury, it goes for the adult bird and never finds the nest. The hope is safety. The desired effect is to keep the eggs from being a feast for another larger bird, skunk, or raccoon. When I walk along with my sweet dog, the killdeers go into their performance with gusto. We have no desire to disturb the eggs but how do they know? How does a bold bird with a little bitty brain really know what my intentions are? All it knows to do is what it is created to do. Its instinct to pretend injury so as save its babies.

I recently found nest with four eggs in it is right on top of a gravel parking area near one of the ranch houses. The nest has survived a front loader coming and going filling in potholes from recent rains. The operator noticed the momma killdeer protecting the nest. He took care not to run over them and even asked us to watch out for it. A few days later, a worker arrived with heavy machinery to fertilize the yards. The driver saw the nest and momma and actually stopped and built a little rock ring around the eggs so no one would crush it. These workers are guys who I would not have guessed would have taken time or been interested in taking care of these vulnerable little eggs. But they did take care–a great deal of care to protect life in this very hard place. I hope the eggs survive all of upcoming festivities soon to happen around the ranch. I really can’t move the eggs for concern that they might be abandoned. So, I am left to hope life survives in this harsh, hard environment. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

The Bible often speaks of rocks and hard places in its metaphorical way. The Psalmist calls God our Rock and our Redeemer and our refuge and salvation. The Gospel of Matthew exalts us to build our houses upon a rock. If we think of images of rock as solid, dependable ground, these wonderful biblical pictures of God come to the forefront. But there are also biblical warnings about the unwise practice of planting seeds in rocky soil. There is caution given about hardening one’s heart.

How do we live in the hard places of life? The killdeer birds choose open, rocky and exposed places to lay their eggs. They have adapted to protecting their nests with all sorts of distracting behaviors and noises. If I have my druthers, I would prefer images of rivers and flowing waters or lying down in green pastures. I like to think of flowing fountains and living waters. However, not all of life unfolds in the lush, easy places with refreshing waters and peace and calm.

The hard places in my life have a lot to say to me. I know from experience that I can and will survive and flourish with the dependability of God’s care and love. I believe that to be true even in death. My task during the hard place times is to learn and be open to the possibilities of blessing and growth. Hindsight is 20-20. Most hard places in my life have been times to be endured. It is often only when I look back that I can I see how much I have learned and grown. At times, it is only in revisiting my memories of difficult seasons that I can determine that God was really there; God was loving me in and through those times. There in the desolate, harsh places were many friends placed in my life who offered protection, care, guidance, and love.

This morning, I am paying attention to the lessons of the killdeer and the gifts of the hard places. I hope the eggs and I can survive the hard places of the present moment and all that is on the horizon. My prayer is to have the awareness and courage that I need to incubate new life as I learn from the rocky moments. What a gift it is when I can catch glimpses of the gifts of living in the hard places especially in the present moment. Like the killdeer birds, I hope the drama of my life is worth it. I hope I can fully be who I am created to be. And, I hope I stay open to the creativity of God in all times and in all places. Perhaps with heightened awareness, I won’t have to wait for 20/20 hindsight to find the fullness of life–even in the hard places. To Kill a Mockingbird is a major hit on Broadway as of late. Perhaps there will be another show that rises to prominence, a show entitled, The Killdeer Way. I wonder if Jeff Daniels is available as my co-star? Now that would be sweet.