Thinking about the Cedar Falls Bible Conference, Willa Cather and Ha Erets

Kansas afternoon in Graham County, KS

This summer I’m preaching at the annual Cedar Falls Bible Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa. They hold it at a campground just like they’ve been doing since the turn of the last century. Some of the same families who were there when these hearty, godly Midwesterners gathered to hear the early evangelists and guest pastors are still there today. I am honored and humbled to be there.

I like preaching there because I like Midwesterners. I have been married to one for a quarter of a century, my son spent his first years on the Midwestern landscape, and I found a new life there. Just like pioneers before me, I journeyed there to start a new life. The old one hadn’t worked out very well. Now, I didn’t choose to become a Midwesterner (you can become one, though it is generally thought that one cannot become a Southerner or a New Englander). I chose something else.

The earlier settlers on the land probably didn’t say, “Living in Minnesota would be really neat.” No. You go to the prairie because there is the promise of a new life there. It is the new life that you are seeking. That is what Willa Cather wrote about, I believe, in all of her stories about pioneering families. Life and land become so intertwined that they become symbols for each other. Well, our story is no My Antonia or Neighbor Rosicky or O Pioneers!, but God sent us to the Midwest (for my wife, God sent her back to the Midwest) and there is a story there.

I will never forget arriving there. I was 27 years old and it was in the fall. I was staying in a hotel my company had arranged for me located on the edge of a suburban sprawl. I didn’t know what suburban sprawl was, but I liked it. I had never seen houses so nicely arranged as those in Overland Park, Kansas where the green, groomed corporate business parks touched the vast, cultivated rows in fields. I felt, on that first morning there, like the land was drawing me in, across the business parks, away from the route to my new office, to witness this land firsthand.

I drove until I couldn’t see anything but fields to the north, south, east and west. I parked my car, got out, and felt the Midwest prairie wind as it chilled me to the bone. And I liked it. It was not like the pneumonia-wet 32-degree air of New Orleans. It felt cleaner, crisper, and it even gave me a slight ache to the lungs, almost a laceration, when I sucked it in. I carefully crossed a ditch and stood next to a fence line. I just stood there. I was now part of this new land. My soul was still newly born from an encounter with God’s grace. And I thought about it: “Here I am: a poor kid from Louisiana, my life broken and battered by my own sins and the sins of others, on my way up the corporate ladder of success, married to the greatest gal in the world, and now led by God to be a part of this land. This land.”

I stood beneath a November Kansas sky that seemed bigger than any sky I had ever seen in my whole life. Standing in wonder on the fence line of the most magnificent field I had ever seen, I felt like I was home. I had a drawing pad in the car, and some colored pencils, and lacking a camera, I drew the field, including the Hereford cattle grazing in the distance. And it began to snow. But I was undeterred and even rather encouraged by the scene. I was drawing the land and the sky (sky being the predominant feature of the land there), with one pencil clinched in my chattering teeth, and my car running with its blue exhaust swirling all around me. That drawing is some where in our home. But I have the scene of the fields and the sky forever etched into my soul. The Midwest. My Midwest. My prairie. No, I guess not. God’s land, God’s prairie.

Since that time, I have moved around, answering calls, serving the church sort of like a soldier serves the Army and goes from assignment to assignment. I live in North Carolina now. But my soul is forever shaped by that gray November Kansas sky and by that vast frozen field I took into my soul that first day when I stepped onto the Midwest prairie. I am, and I think I always will be a Midwesterner.

In the Hebrew, there is a word, ha erets, the land. The land is where we were meant to be:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and ha erets, the land (Genesis 1:1). Ha erets, the land, brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:12).

In our sin, the land is what we lost:

When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on ha erets, the land (Genesis 4:12).

In His goodness and grace, God promised a return to the land:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to ha erets, the land, that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

And so the covenant-bearer, Abram, heard the divine command of promise:

Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of ha erets, the land, for I will give it to you (Genesis 13:17).

Of course the land was lost, in sin. It always is lost here. What I learned was that in God’s grace, ha erets, the land, there is a living sign of the redemption we have in Jesus Christ. Ha erets, the land, is where we are going in Him. It is not just heaven; it is heaven in our souls. And it is a real promise of a new heaven and a new earth. For we were meant to tend the garden in ha erets, the land.

When I go to preach at the Cedar Falls Bible Conference in Iowa, that most Midwestern of Midwestern places in the American landscape, I will taste the bratwurst, the flesh of ha erets, and the boiled corn, the grain of ha erets, and watch the children chasing fireflies in the dusk of the day, glimpses of future glory-days in ha erets. I will look past the white clapboard houses of the old Bible campgrounds, to the golden August fields that lie just beyond the fence lines, as they always must in this life. I will look out and taste ha erets with my eyes, and drink in its truth like a thirsty child lapping at the cold water trickling from a green garden hose on a hot summer day.

I am ready for ha erets. The older I get the more I want to be there, and I speak now of “a better place” than even the Midwest.  I know it sounds funny to some, but Ha erets is now a place in my soul, a Midwestern place, a holy place.

It will be good to go back, and to preach the Gospel of the One who is leading us home and to be reminded of the ha erets I am really longing for.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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