Big Rivers Tall Grass

IMG_20160704_142900661A river, by my definition, has to stretch hundreds of miles and drain thousands of square miles of prairie land.  Anything less is just a stream.  Rivers come from places unknown and stretch far beyond your own horizon leading toward the ocean.


Car Wash Options Tributaries of the Missouri: Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers

Gate to the Mountains: Headwaters of Missouri River












The Des Moines River, the Illinois River, the Ohio River, the Missouri River—all of which flow into the mighty Mississippi River.  I have lived among these rivers.  They together drain all the land between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains.  Thousands of square miles. When my grandmother was older, she lived in an apartment along the Des Moines River in Minnesota.  I lived 300 miles southeast near the Des Moines River in Iowa.  Open land stretched from my house to hers. Every Sunday, when I took my walk along the Des Moines River, I would imagine its route upstream to my grandmother’s town.

I once took a group of international visitors to see a lock and dam on the Mississippi River when I was a graduate student in Minnesota.  We yelled to the barge operator below us, asking about his load.  He had grain from the upper Midwest and was headed to New Orleans where it would be put on an ocean vessel to take it abroad.  Rivers fuel imagination because they come from somewhere and are going somewhere.  It is no surprise that singer, songwriter, Carly Simon used the image of the river:

Let the River Run

We’re coming to the edge,
Running on the water,
Coming through the fog,
Your sons and daughters.

Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.

Big rivers are a force of nature.  Mature rivers like these I grew up among, wind back and forth across a landscape carving out broad and flat fertile valleys. In the middle of a region with relatively little topography, I would always lose my breath as I came to the valley’s edge at places like Little America, Illinois, where the vista opened up in front of me.  During the Floods of 1993, the rivers took back their valleys, reminding everyone that rivers are a force of nature.

DSCN0955My grandmother was born in Iowa—the “land between two rivers.”  She talked about the tall grass prairie, with its low wet spots where the cows would get stuck in the mud and have to be pulled out. Tall Grass.  These low spots and the prairie vegetation would collect rainwater and hold it, releasing it slowly into the rivers.  People eventually tiled the low parts of the prairie and plowed all of it, reducing nature’s natural holding tank and increasing the speed and height of floods.

Attempts are being made to restore the valleys and grasslands of Big Rivers.  Farmland is being turned back into sloughs within the valleys to give the rivers back their ability to weave back and forth across the landscape.  And in a very few places you can see the restoration of the prairie.  I visited such a site this summer just south of Chicago.  A block of land that was formerly in a military reserve created an opportunity for prairie restoration.  As I walked through the 7-year-old prairie, it smelled of home—a combination of direct sun, high humidity (the type that makes the corn grow) and the smell of growing grass.  Tall Grass.






Dan Fogelberg, in his song, “The River” talks about his inability to escape the Big River and Tall Grass of his origin:


I was born by a river
Rolling past a town…

I was raised by a river…

Weaned upon the sky…

I will die by a river
As it rolls away

Big Rivers.  Tall Grass.  If it isn’t hundreds if not thousands of miles long, it is not a river.  If it can’t grow five feet tall, it isn’t grass.

Notes from a Cross-Cultural Conversation

My colleagues at Gordon College and I recently spent two days with a group of scholars/pastors/thought leaders from Brazil, Hong Kong, and China.  We had the pleasure of hosting them for a gathering to explore issues of the evangelical church and its engagement with an increasingly pluralist society in each of these settings.  Near the end of our meeting, I shared what I thought I had heard in the discussion related to the challenges or opportunities facing the church in Brazil and China as they tried to serve the common good while remaining faithful, and where I thought visionary energy could be derived.

Cultural Resources

The local church is always embedded in a context rich with particular cultural resources available to them.  These are natural entryways to service and are also elements of culture and history that need to be amplified and honored in local expressions of faith.  In a country which values education and the elderly, Christians in China have naturally found niches in which to serve society that center around children and honor the family.  The Brazilian church is embedded in a culture that values warmth and hospitality.  Is there a way to honor these cultural values by expressing them and affirming them through programs that serve the common good?

Christians in each country also face political challenges: repression in China and divided priorities in Brazil, sometimes advanced by unethical means.  But one common opportunity is to recover a history of ethical Christian engagement with society.  The Chinese Christians have Chinese Republican history from the early part of the twentieth century as a model for what is possible for society.  Brazilian Christians have a history of positive collaboration and engagement with each other before the present fracturing of the church.  These are histories that need to be recovered and can serve as a cultural resource to draw upon.

Biblical Narratives

In listening to my brothers and sisters, I found Biblical narratives to help me frame their individual contexts.  As my Chinese brothers and sisters talked about the church, I am reminded of the New Testament context of Caesar and Rome.  They face a similar challenge of knowing what to render to Caesar and what belongs to God. They must wisely determine what steps allow the church to flourish amidst Caesar’s rule.  My Brazilian brothers and sisters described a dynamic situation that parallels Paul addressing the crowd in the marketplace in Athens.  Like Paul calling the people back to the worship of one God, the church is trying to find its footing amidst the cacophony of religious expression. Perhaps identifying the biblical narratives that speak to our place and time will inspire a vision for churches and resources to confront our realities.

Capacity Building and Opportunity

Christians in each setting have opportunities to build capacity in their cultures and societies by recognizing the obstacles that they face and addressing them.  In China, training and growth around church governance  is building capacity in its members that are far reaching in terms of the development of civil society.  In Brazil, where Christians experience challenges in their efforts to engage politics in a mature manner, an emphasis on church polity may serve the church well as a capacity-building strategy.  Though very different contexts, an emphasis on church governance may have more broadly transformative impacts than anticipated.

What opportunities might each faith community explore?  What if Chinese evangelicals joined with others at the local level around environmental issues, developing a care of creation movement in China?  This could be expressed as care of neighbor, but especially care of children and their future, alongside care of elderly.  The Lausanne Creation Care conference is going to be held in Taiwan.  Is this an opportunity?  What if Brazilian evangelicals took on one policy-related issue to practice the recovery of their past ability to act jointly?  This effort could be a learning exercise as they learn to use media, reflect, and re-engage, growing in their ability to model a mature engagement in the public square.  Could this help to start to recover a sense of common life among Christians?

In the end, in cross-cultural encounters, we always learn more about ourselves than others.  What did I learn about the American evangelical church?  I learned that we need the Chinese church to teach us what it means to suffer for Christ and give thanks for religious freedom.  And I learned that we need the Brazilian church to model for us the transformative power of the Spirit.  Christians in both contexts express a deep yearning for maturity in Christ.  We have much to learn from our  Chinese and Brazilian brothers and sisters who can contribute to our maturing in our faith as we seek to  engage with society in order to  serve the common good.

For more on the Project on Evangelicalism and Culture, see: