I am spending the summer in a small U.S. town on the Mississippi River. I don’t believe there are more than several hundred people who live here year-round anymore. The population sign hasn’t been updated in decades so I’m not really sure. The county is one of the poorest counties in the state economically — and life here is very challenging for most people financially, but rich spiritually. Many buildings date back to the 1800s, although the original logs and hand-pounded nails are usually covered by sawed-timber or modern siding now. Community well-being is dependent on church outreach programs and a sense of community that is based on cooperation and sharing one’s success and excess with others.
Though poor, the area is steeped in values of God, family, country and cultural traditions. For the most part, people of different skin colors and faiths live peacefully alongside each other. The area is predominately Christian. This riverside community coexists peacefully with the Amish community nearby, sharing blacksmith expertise and trading goods for services when money is in short supply. Lemonade is made from lemons squeezed into glasses of ice-cold water — not powdered chemicals, and summer cooking is often done outdoors in clay ovens or over fires beneath iron grills. Dill is a seasoning of choice, and pumpkin and rhubarb are grown in excess. Grocery stores and bakeries are supplied by summer gardens and local ovens, not conglomerates. By late summer most people will be making their own preserves to get them through the upcoming winter months.
Help is not denied to people in need, but people do not want to become an unnecessary burden to their neighbors despite hard times and must be encouraged to ask for assistance. Everyone pretty much helps others make it in ways that they can knowing that today’s people in need will probably be tomorrow’s contributors. Strangers are welcome here as long as they are courteous and respectful of differences, and hard-working and compassionate people do not remain strangers very long.
The public school almost closed when the county voted against frac-mining because the mining company funded the schools of the counties who didn’t vote against them instead of the one here, but the villages here found a way to combine resources to educate their children despite it. People shared their resources to keep enough schools open without jeopardizing their lifestyle and avoided taking money from companies that threatened the habitat of bald eagles, fish, bear, coyotes, wolves, cougars, and deer with whom we share our land.
Most families know the names of their ancestors from many previous generations, respecting the balance between old ways and the need to change. People who live here now struggle to make a living as their ancestors did because the riverbed has been over-harvested (the area no longer can make its living from river pearls for jewelry and shells for buttons) and pollution and commercial fishing have depleted fresh-water fishing reserves. Family-owned farms rule here, taking advantage of a revival in farmers’ markets and health-conscious and environmentally-friendly farming practices. Dairy cows graze in grass fields, alongside fawns, wildflowers, and rocky creek beds. Cheese curds are served warm and indigenous crops have replaced foods that cannot be grown here without altering the genetic composition of them. Younger people are returning to the area to cater to an emerging, summer tourism industry and an inter-dependent, family-oriented, community way of life that is disappearing elsewhere. It doesn’t seem to matter whether one is straight or gay — any loving family is recognized as a family here. Lifestyle choices are matters reserved to God when people interpret the Bible differently.
I grew up near here. My family has owned this old river house for decades. It bears the scars of age and past financial depressions — along with the imprint of my loved ones no longer with me. As a young person, I took a less materialistic life for granted. As a younger adult, I did not see the blessing in it. As a child, however, I valued the life I had here — along with my parents, my family, and my friends. I fondly remember catching fireflies and walking along the railroad tracks that separate the heat from the cooling breezes off the bluffs and bayous. I miss the days spent with loved ones no longer with me, I miss my friends on horseback, swimming in the abandoned quarries, and being barefoot while picking strawberries and raspberries for mid-afternoon snacks. Different generations worked and played together here, and we all had chores that accomplished a sense of oneness. Late evenings were often spent on the screened porches counting stars, listening to Bible stories, or playing games — out of the reach of biting mosquitoes that ruled the night, except for the evening bats that ate them. There was no question that our lives belonged to God or that God was always with us, even in the hardest or saddest of times. He stood by us through wars, marriages, births and deaths. In our darkest and brightest hours, Christ was always with us. There was no artificial noise or distraction to keep us awake at night, and no challenges to my faith. I didn’t need validation of God to believe in Him. I could see Him in the miracle of butterflies and hear Him in the thunder of summer rain.
As I gained more material success in my lifetime, I acquired many ambitions and material things that competed for God’s attention. When I was young, I didn’t have television, laptops, or cellphones to compete with the time in-between breaths, and people openly read the Bible and sought to do God’s will for the sake of pleasing Him — readily laughing at themselves and admitting openly when they messed up. As I grew aware of how I was perceived by others, my perceptions also changed. “Outsiders” often ridiculed us for our way of life, how almost everything that we owned had been previously owned by somebody else, or the simple way we dressed, and sometimes I would feel ashamed that I was not more “worldly” or outwardly “successful.” It took decades for me to overcome the need for peer approval by people who had accumulated expensive things, but had lost God in the process. I eventually learned that it’s better to be alone with God than accepted by people who don’t know and love Him.
I learned that — for me — less “stuff” is actually a blessing. Less diversions are a gift.
And I’ve learned that it’s easier for me to have a good relationship with God when my life is a bit simpler, less “worldly,” and slower — when I’m not multi-tasking and not so goal or accomplishment-driven. It’s too easy for me to lose my way when competing for the affections of people instead of God, or when I’m distracted by too many things that I value more than my time alone with Him. I have learned that anything that takes my attention, can take the place of God if I am not careful and mindful of the distractions. Money or material comforts, in particular, can rise to god-status when I allow them to consume too much of my affection or pursuits.
“For God said, ‘You must never forget the covenant I made with you; never worship other gods. You must worship only the Lord; he will save you from all your enemies.” (2 Kings 17: 38-39)
I needed to come back to this place in order to remember the covenant I made with God. This place is special to me because it reminds me of who I am. This is my summer of reconciliation with Him — and with myself. I suspect it’s His will that I find myself back at my starting point after all these many decades of material consumption, human desires, and “worldly successes.” Too many times I have watched as my worldly successes contributed to spiritual blunders.Too many times I have felt lost and helplessly adrift.
This is a good place — and a good time — to downsize my worldly ego, reevaluate the people in my life, remember my obligations to Christ, recommit to my faith, and become a better version of myself than I am.
In truth, this time and place is a reckoning — and it’s long overdue.
The thing I love most about this time and place is the presence of God that permeates the way of life here. I can feel God in the way most people live here and in the way nature responds to their lifestyle. The majority of people here do things because it is right in the eyes of God, not because they can get away with less. There is little unappreciated, and little tolerance for complaints, excess, or waste. People help other people here because they know their community rises and falls with the weakest among them, in addition to their strongest members. Leaders lead by grace and wisdom, not by intimidation, ridicule, or bullying. There is forgiveness for mistakes. There is a “oneness” in the effort that it takes to survive here, for which I am very grateful. This community is not just where people live, but it is where people live with God.
The church bells that call people to worship are the same bells that call volunteers to assemble when a neighbor is in need, there is a fire, or volunteers are needed in another emergency. I find deep spiritual symbolism in that. God is not simply a Sunday idea here, God is a way of life.
And no, it is not perfect here. Far from it — for sin and evil can be found here too and there are always those who seek to destroy those things that please God and His dreams for us.
But despite its flaws, this is a good place. And I am thankful to call it my temporary home.
And for that matter, so can any place be a good place. So can any place be used for God’s purpose.
For the ability of God to transform any place — and any one — into a better version knows no boundaries, no limits, and no time.
God’s love has the power to make any place where we are the perfect place.
All we need is faith and the wisdom to claim no other God as our own.
Photo by Jazzdat