Monday, August 13, 2012

Upstream or downstream: a reflection from a kayak

The central Pennsylvania sky had cleared, and the sun was shining over the green ridges into the river. I paddled my kayak towards the western shore of the Susquehanna with my sister a few yards behind me. Herons and egrets took off as we approached them, and the nearby train tracks rumbled with coal-laden cars dieseling their way south. I had forgotten how beautiful this country is and how much it is a part of me.

I think it’s easy to forget our connection with the land when one lives in a large metropolitan area. I know that’s been true for me after living two years on the South Side of Chicago. The experience of going to sleep with the sound of crickets and frogs around hardly compares with the voices, car horns, and sirens that are the normal city night’s soundtrack.

My three days in central Pennsylvania were part of a longer vacation that was otherwise urban. I had started with a conference in Arlington, Virginia where we celebrated over 60 years of young adults in mission in the United Methodist Church. Next I moved to Philadelphia where several friends and family members have settled, and where soft pretzels lie down with the steak sandwiches (come, Lord Jesus). Then central PA, and now Pittsburgh, where I sip yerba mate with my cousin in the shadow of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning (don’t judge).

However, the question that seems to keep surfacing is one about the future. I begin seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary in September, and I can’t even imagine what kind of adventures wait for me there. But the question is less about seminary and more about where God is calling me in ministry. I’m talking about geographical location. John Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish” in response to mounting pressure for him to take his father’s place at the rectory in Epworth, England, but every vocation occurs in a geographical and cultural context.

I have recently seen the stark contract between two contexts that I have called home. One is urban Chicago, a wildly diverse and dynamic setting, a setting which has been my home for the last two years and will be my home for the next three years as well. People come and go like a Lake Michigan breeze. The other area is central Pennsylvania, where rolling mountain ridges seem to stand guard against sudden, unexpected changes, and generation after generation maintain traditions that run deeper than any social media thread.

I’ve met people who have left central Pennsylvania and never plan to come back, and I’ve met others who did indeed return after a time of personal growth. I can see how my experience in community organizing and interfaith work could easily fit in one conference, but I also see room for growth in the other. I’ve gone to two United Methodist annual conferences in two years, I’ve seen two very different styles for ecclesiastic culture, but now both of those conferences are welcoming new leadership in the episcopacy. Where does that leave me?

I make some connections with my short foray into kayaking in the shallow Susquehanna waters. I had tried so hard to make my way upstream, but I found that I couldn’t pass a set of rapids no matter how hard I tried. However, by going downstream just a bit, I managed to continue upstream by starting up the Juniata River, which joins the Susquehanna at my hometown. God has called me to address root problems that plague our varied communities, and my experiences in Chicago have given me tools to fight those problems. However, I don’t need to always fight my way upstream through rapids that push me backwards and might even overturn me if I’m not careful. God is making a path for me that may require to me go downstream before I start to address root problems further upstream. How far downstream will I need to go, and where might that other river take me? I don’t know, but I have faith that God will provide a way to the source of life that will quench the thirst of a dry land. I just need to keep the nose of my kayak straight and paddle hard.
The confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers at Duncannon, Pennsylvania.

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