“Boom, Bust and Beyond” is the theme of this first blog in a new series, “District Dialog.”
REV. SCOTT HARMON
Traveling what has long been identified as the Marquette District – largest of all the districts east of the Mississippi River — I often hear the affirmation that, “This is God’s country.” While the conviction is certainly sincere, and our soon-to-be District #1 has within it the regional mission and outreach center God’s Country Cooperative Parish, there are surely as many locations considered “God’s Country” as there are places we call home.
As with many areas of our state Northern Michigan has known the cycles of booms and busts. From the fur trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, commercial fishing and mining of copper in the mid-nineteenth, to logging and iron in the latter half of that same century, communities mushroomed as resources were harnessed.
With the growth came our Methodist forebears, missionaries and pastors at one time outnumbering any other denomination along Superior’s south shore. Hardy adventurous souls like John Clark (1833), William Brockway (1838), James Evens (1838), and John H. Pitezel (1843). Faces now long forgotten who answered the call to serve God’s people in an isolated wilderness.
Even today the remoteness of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula is a unique treasure. The western communities of District #1 have a far greater connection with Green Bay, Wisconsin or Duluth, Minnesota than they do with Lower Michigan. Of our 60 congregations, 14 are located in the Central Time Zone west of Chicago. Surprising as well to those unfamiliar with the northern region is our strong connection with Alaska. Rev. Ray Buckley who was with us this summer from The Alaska Missionary Conference told of the annual “U.P. gathering” in Anchorage bringing Upper Peninsula transplants together in an informal day of connection to the place they called home.
Those who travel north today still find hints of the past. The many structures from mining’s boom days (copper on the Keweenaw, and iron ore in the central Upper Peninsula). Enormous saw blades, with abandoned rail berms, trestles, and sun-bleached stumps from the lumbering days. Along the shores of both great lakes the fishing villages and boats once marking their trades are still there. As well as the churches giving witness to the spiritual life within these communities.
While loving this land and its proud legacy, and especially those who have lived and are living through its booms and busts, I’m drawn these days not to a question of history but to one of mission …. “what lies beyond?”
As Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (13:12) attests to the difficulty of recognizing God’s full reality amidst the dimness of our own vision, there are northern images which for me have been meaningful as we seek to find our way. The first reflects something of our Alaskan connection. The UP-200 is an annual 12-dog, dogsled race covering some 200 miles of Upper Peninsula back country. As a qualifying race for the Iditarod it draws teams from across the United States and Canada.
In mid-February, as I watched the teams start down the prepared snow-packed streets of Marquette, what I noticed was not the uniformity of the dogs, but rather the way they were pulling in the same direction. Looking into the eyes of these canine athletes stretching forward through the twists and turns of the city, I was left with little doubt of the passion that filled them or the ability they had in working together. Forming such a team though takes practice, and patience, and trust. Surely no one would expect to do well on race day if they hadn’t put in the effort required to effectively work together. What’s true of dogsledding I believe has some correlations in the body of Christ as well.
A second image is of places with names like Copper Peak (Ironwood), Pine Mountain (Iron Mountain), or Suicide Hill (Ishpeming). Locations that, as ski jumps, both inspire and terrify. What does ski jumping have to with actively engaging the world as the body of Christ? Both, when practiced at their best, are indeed inspiring and terrifying; challenging us to take a big step beyond what we are comfortable with, the effort we are willing to make, the risks we are willing to take, the fear we are willing to set aside. “Why would I ever…?” is a question Jesus calls us each to answer.
And yes, there are times when following Jesus, being the church, requires us to do just that. Where it feels a lot like coming off a ski jump: risky, stepping into the unknown. An unknown that others with “good sense” would be hesitant to go into, and yet in the midst of a myriad reasons why we shouldn’t, there is still the itch…. a call to step beyond what can be fully known, comprehensively evaluated, or risk-managed. A call that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob challenged the people of Israel with over and again. The journey Jesus testified to in assuring his followers that our “God is the God of the living not of the dead”.
In the Old Testament story of Esther a young woman, hesitant to step forward in uncertain times, is told by her uncle, “who knows but that you have not come for such a time as this?”… Today as we too seek to be faithful in the challenge of our own uncertain times, we listen for the Spirit’s leading stepping beyond the booms once enjoyed and the busts long endured, through imperfections and sometimes even blindness, to what lies beyond as we seek within our storied communities to answer the question long posed, “Lord, how can we best follow you? What would you have us to become?”