At home in the world
The river ranch sits on the Missouri River between Great Falls and Fort Benton. Family ranch and farm land are on both sides of the river. The land has been certified organic and is managed without the use of chemicals. The hills and breaks and bluffs of the Missouri Valley have been used as rangeland and are home to deer and a host of other critters. It is a beautiful place. My cousin’s grandchildren are the sixth generation of our family who have lived on and worked this land.
All land is sacred, endowed by the Creator with properties that support and sustain not only our bodies, but also our spirits. Just visiting the ranch is always a time of renewal for me. Waking up this morning to the prolific birdsong is a special treat for me.
Yesterday a group of a hundred or more people gathered at the ranch to remember my cousin Russ, who lived all of his life on the ranch and whose larger than life personality impacted so many lives. The gathering was an amazingly diverse group of ranchers and organic farmers and scientists and engineers and authors and even a couple of ministers. We had a grand potluck with so much food that there was no way to even sample all of the offerings.
I talked with cousins whom I haven’t seen for decades and met a few new folks. We all had stories about Russ. It was interesting to note that each of us had a sense that we had received special treatment from Russ. I had spent two of my teenage summers working with him on the ranch and always felt that whenever I was around, he would drop everything to visit with me. So did my cousins. He had a way of making each person feel welcomed, loved and valued.
After a big meal and lots of visiting a smaller group of us got in our cars and drove down by the river to a place that has been special to a lot of us to visit the gravesite where Russ is buried. Knowing that his body is there in the very soil he loved and tended with the river running by and the sweet sage perfuming the air gave me a deep feeling that this is right. We love the people in our lives and we grieve when they die and we find ways to express our grief while we acknowledge that in God’s great creation nothing is wasted. The elements of our bodies are returned to the earth and new life comes forth.
Russ was an unconventional man and so his grave is a bit unconventional as well. In place of a headstone, there is a cairn of rocks. In addition to the native grasses and sage there have been planted a few organic lentils and a bit of purple sage. Some of those who gathered left other small tokens. We sang a few songs. The river kept flowing. The birds kept singing. The wind kept refreshing the countryside.
And then there was more talk. Cousins pondering ideas of the passing of generations, of the simple fact that we are now the elders of our family and that things are changing. New generations have spread out across the world. One piece of geography, though central to our family story, has a different meaning to our grandchildren than it does to us. The places of our childhoods are not the places of our grandchildren. Just like that mighty river that keeps flowing by the ranch, time keeps rolling by. Among the memories and nostalgia were hopes and dreams and a few fears about the future. Some of us are facing some big changes in our lives. Others have already gone through major life transitions. There is a kind of collective wisdom when our family gathers.
Whenever I wake on a Sunday while on vacation there is a moment of disorientation. I wake early on Sundays and am used to starting my day by reviewing my sermon. When I’m on vacation there is no sermon to deliver, and paying too much attention to the texts for the day can cause me to be distracted when I worship in a setting that is different from the congregation I serve. Part of vacation is allowing myself to be present in the moment of the lives and worship styles of others. I’m not the best at not being in charge and vacation is an opportunity to practice a skill that will be increasingly important as the years pass.
The sounds of the morning at the ranch are very good therapy for one who needs to work at the skill and grace of relaxation. The windsong and birdsong combine to refresh my life. It is no mistake that the big commandments of our people start with acknowledging and honoring God and move to learning to relax and giving God the sabbath before turning to the behaviors that sustain community such as honesty and honoring elders and respecting others. There is great wisdom just in the order of the rules we have received for living as a free people.
Today is sabbath. It is a holy day. The congregation that I love is in good hands with capable leadership. I am blessed to be in a place of deep meaning and rich tradition.
In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is the same word that is used for wind and it is the same word that is used for breath. Here in the Missouri breaks, it doesn’t take much imagination at all to feel the wind as the breath of God. It is a gift to be able to inhale that wind and feel the presence of the Creator and know that the air we breathe is shared with all of the creatures of this planet. Gratitude comes naturally.
Here I can understand that my elders and those who have gone before are not just in the places where their bodies have been laid to rest, but are a part of something much bigger that is beyond any particular place. That knowledge is something that I will take with me wherever I roam. And, when my time comes to join the elders in the life beyond this one I now know, the location will not be important because truly God is everywhere.