Journey Through the Land of Ahhs

An Autumn Devotion by the Rev. Jay McKell

I want you to join me on a journey I took across Kansas recently.  Actually it’s a journey we’ve been taking for quite some time now.  We just may not have realized it.  Join me in the driver’s seat as you use your imagination to create the pictures I describe.  But before we get going I want to suggest you read Psalm 139:1-18.

The folks in Kansas City say the trip to Denver is one mile repeated six-hundred times.  The first time I drove there I thought that was true.  The countryside can be boring.  Like a kid, I just wanted to get there.  But over time the journey has become more beautiful and more engaging.  Interestingly nothing has changed much … except me, I suppose.  I’ve learned to pay more attention, to look more carefully, to expect there to be some surprises … some lessons to be learned along the way.  Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, helped me make the discovery that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Fall is settling in over the prairie.  The golden rod is bursting into brilliant bloom, while fields of once proud, bold sunflowers, their heads held high as if gazing into the eyes of God, are now bent over, bowing those same heads to cooling temperatures and shortening days.  Milo, terra cotta colored, will soon find itself processed for cattle food.   No longer is “the corn as high as an elephant’s eye.”  No longer does “the waving wheat sure smell sweet” – oh, I know those are “Oklahoma” songs, but they best belong to Kansas.  Combines have nearly completed their sweeps through the dusty fields.  Hay bales like grave stones appear as yet another sign of a change of seasons while here and there, awaiting their brief holiday showing/glowing, bits of orange pumpkins peak out from under big green leaves as they await their picking.  “For everything there is a season,” isn’t there?  “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted, a time to keep and a time to throw away.”

Some think of Kansas as “the land of ahhs,” not Oz but “ahhs” – big sky country.  Indeed it is.  One can constantly see a grain silo and a church steeple on the horizon up ahead as well as in the rear view mirror, one after another, after another. It seems these small towns and their churches are emptying out and wearing out.  The only thing holding them together may be the old-fashioned telephone poles, the ones that look a lot like elongated crosses. In Kansas you can drive for miles and never see a living soul, house, car or any evidence of humanity except for those poles.  They are visible the entire way, sometimes standing tall in long, straight lines right at the roadside, but other times off in the distance.

Along the way country music and Christian radio compete with one another, always winning out over NPR.  Of course there are road signs. Twelve of them say “Believe in Jesus or spend eternity in hell.”  It’s far from comforting given this past summer’s assaulting heat.  Fortunately that theology is challenged by seven other billboards upon which appear a pleasant portrait of Jesus along with the words “Jesus, I trust you.”  But do we?  Sometimes I wonder.  Several other signs remind drivers that “One Kansas farmer feeds 128 people plus you.”  That’s not quite as many as Jesus did, but in these days of economic decline it is good to be reminded there are still some who feed the hungry.

There’s wind.  There is always wind blowing, sometimes hot, sometimes bitter cold.  I guess it’s the preacher in me, but sometimes I watch the waving wheat and the big storms blowing by and think about the Spirit of God blowing when and where it will, and I wonder … I wonder where God’s stormy spirit is taking us these days.   Others are a bit more practical I suppose;  after all, wind is energy so they have placed towering wind turbines on the hilltops.  Their behemoth blades turn slowly in the wind, overshadowing and overtaking rusted out windmills of another era.  “For everything there is a season …”

Much of the trip we follow in the footsteps of adventurous pioneers who traveled the Santa Fe Trail and other pathways across this wilderness.  Their trips were long and hard.  No doubt there was grief in their going, saying goodbye to friends and family and all that which was familiar, setting out for who knows what … or where.  All along the way there are dumping grounds where mama’s piano and those heavy four poster beds were left behind so as to alleviate the heavy burden borne by the animals pulling those old covered wagons.  There are also long forgotten grave sites where friends and family members now rest in peace.  No doubt many were tempted to turn back.  Some still are.  Seeing how difficult these trips were has repeatedly caused me to ask, “Why did people make such strenuous trips?  Where were they going?”  Historians tell us they sang “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.”  Certainly that vision played a part in the lives of these pioneers on the prairie.

“Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.”  That’s the Kansas state song but in traveling across the country there are discouraging words and cloudy skies, for fewer and fewer are making their home on the range.  It saddens me to see so much of my state shutting down.

Don’t get me wrong.  We do have our “cities.”  We have our own Manhattan; we call it the “little apple,” and Abilene, the boyhood home of Dwight Eisenhower and his six brothers.  It’s almost impossible to get there unless you have a car and if you do it’s likely you drove it across the very first portion of the U.S. Interstate Highway System which the Eisenhower administration initiated.  Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that even Kansas has a cathedral, the Cathedral on the Plains, not to be confused with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  Next comes Russell, the boyhood home of both Bob Dole and Arlen Spector, statesmen cut from a shrinking cloth that was once woven together with more care for the common good than it currently is.  Then there’s Fort Hayes where Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill once lived and Oakley where Annie didn’t live, much to the disappointment of the Chamber of Commerce.  I-70 doesn’t go through Liberal.  As hard as it is to believe, there actually is such a town in Kansas, although it well may be abandoned by now.  Finally one gets to Goodland.  It’s good to get to Goodland ‘cause it isn’t much past there that one, Moses- like, begins to see the distant Promised Land sitting on the far horizon.  What first appear to be clouds slowly become mountains, snow capped even in the fall.  At that point I wonder how many of those who have made this trip before me paused and uttered, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come.”

Having gotten us to Goodland I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions and make your own connections, but to me there certainly seem to be some similarities between a trip across Kansas and the journey we Presbyterians are on as our future unfolds and we await a word from the Lord of heaven and earth.  Where is the Spirit blowing us?   Who will come and go with us as we continue our journey?  What should we cast aside and what should we hold tightly to?  Can we pioneers trust Jesus like those signs say we should?  Have we lost our way or are we bound for the Promised Land and if so, who will go with us?  What will our home, our home on the range look like?

There are many questions to be answered.   As we do so let me remind you what the psalmist wrote about the role God plays in our journey:  “Even the darkness is not darkness to you” O God.  “You search out our path … and are acquainted with all our ways.  … We come to the end – We are still with you.”


  1. http://Janice%20Blansit says


Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.