As I was heading into the downtown of the city yesterday, I approached a stoplight (or, as they are known in this part of the world, stop-and-go light) which was red so I started to slow long before I got to the intersection. And then I saw it. Right there in the middle of my lane. There was no wind so it wasn’t even moving. But there was no mistaking what I was seeing: a very large, very perfectly formed tumbleweed.
Now, when I was living in the middle of South Dakota, we never thought much about tumbleweeds other than to try to dodge them on the highway so they didn’t scrape the side of the car as they, well, tumbled across in the never-ending wind.
But in southern Wisconsin, I’ve never seen a tumbleweed. Clearly, they have been out there, but I haven’t seen them even though we live in a rural area and I have had to drive a lot of rural miles to serve the churches I have served. Then, to see one as I approached the downtown area of Madison, Wisconsin, was a bit surprising. I’ve driven this route almost every week for over a year and I’ve never seen it before.
God wanted me to see this tumbleweed. No doubt.
When I drove into Pierre, South Dakota, to secure my first job out of college, it was an oppressively hot July day. The wind, as I discovered was not unusual, was incessant. The sun beat hard upon the main drag through town as it had for the hours it took to get there. And there, just as I crossed the bridge over the Missouri River from the west, was a huge, well-formed tumbleweed blowing across the street in front of my car.
I slowed and as I surveyed the desolate surroundings (this was a very long time ago and Pierre is really a very pretty community now), I distinctly remember saying to myself. “Six months. I’m giving this place six months and then I’m out of here.”
Twenty-five years later, my husband was made an offer for a job in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. We hadn’t planned on making a move. I was just two years into my second career and God and I were making a lot of progress along with the congregation in Fort Pierre, back across that same Missouri River. We had moved from 25 folks in the pews on a Sunday morning to just over 100. They were a delightful bunch of God’s people and while change was difficult for many of them, as it is for me, they had moved a long way in God’s direction.
And as we drove into Wisconsin, I thought I had arrived in the Garden of Eden. We had once had a friend who observed that when God created the earth, God started in Wisconsin and moved east. By the time God got back around to South Dakota, my friend said, God was pooped. As we made our way across the state, I came to a quick conclusion that my friend was right. No desolation here, at least out in the country. Even when it snowed, the snow came straight down, unaltered in its direction by the wind because there wasn’t any. When spring arrived and everything turned green, by golly it stayed green all the way into the next winter unlike the grasses burned brown by the undaunted sun in July in South Dakota.
But in the 17 years we’ve been in southern Wisconsin, I’ve learned a few things. The wind does blow here and the snow can be every bit as hazardous. It can feel colder in Wisconsin than in South Dakota because there’s more humidity here. That humidity also explains why everything stays so green in the summer. I’ve also learned that as the entire country has become so deeply divided, much of the environs of Madison, Wisconsin, has a rather monolithic thinking. They are as united as the country is divided. Painting with a broad brush, but it doesn’t have to be very broad, it has become clear to me that there is generally one way to think here and everyone has to fall within those parameters or we’re suspect. As open as the people of Madison claim to be, they are not. Their thinking is narrowly liberal and will implode if an independent thought might be introduced. I detest that about the city just as I detest the narrowness of the far right, ultra conservative thinking found in pockets elsewhere.
I’ve also learned that topography, geography, climate, and access to major metropolitan areas are not as important to me as are friends.
I had a lot of friends in South Dakota and even back in my home state of Missouri. It’s taken me a lot longer to develop a very few deeper friendships here. I’ve become surprised that some of my closest friends here are clients in a homeless ministry of which I’m part in Madison.
When I came upon that perfectly formed tumbleweed in the middle of my lane on East Johnson Street yesterday, it reminded me of that tumbleweed I saw on that first-job-drive into Pierre, S.D., 42 years ago. It reminded me that what initially seemed so frustrating was simply an omen of the friends I would make, the unsurpassed opportunities that would fall into my path, the life lessons on love and forgiveness I would be taught, would be able to extend, and, most importantly, would be extended to me. I was also reminded of how we didn’t agree with one another all of the time and our discussions, ranging from music to politics were spicy and interesting. Those debates among friends and colleagues and even those across the aisle were challenging and made us think about what we believed and whether we should believe the way we did. We were open, at least most of us were, to hearing the thoughts of those who believed differently than we did.
Assuming I will be above ground for another six months, I’ll still be in south central Wisconsin at that time. Maybe even 25 years as I was in Pierre.
Now that I’m not in ministry anymore, I don’t have to worry so much about keeping my thoughts to myself. I don’t have to contemplate how what I say out loud or write on a page might tick someone off. I do still think about those things. I don’t want to deliberately hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s just not me. But in these 17 years here, I’ve learned that keeping my feelings bottled up hurts only me and it does nothing to broaden the views of those so thoroughly stuck in the muck of thought that is only supported by those around them and never challenged.
I’d rather be the tumbleweed rolling across the road than the perfectly shaped one just lying in the middle of the city street.
2 “For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
3 for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
5 let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
6 to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.” – Proverbs 1:2-7