In Praise of a Small Town
During our recent family holiday in the mountain valley town of Lincoln, Vermont where my parents live, I remembered what that town taught me about a life well-lived. We spent a sabbatical 18 months there after leaving inner-city Jackson, Mississippi in 1998 . As Donna and I worshiped in the intimate sanctuary of Lincoln Community Church — after a short walk from my parents’ house past the Town Hall, General Store, volunteer fire department, mountain stream, and single town stop sign — I remembered the new place God took our family to on that sacred ground, and what I wrote to the church before our departure to Durham in 2000. It reminds me how God works in surprising ways in moving us from the known to the unknown.
In Praise of a Small Town
Two years ago Donna and I packed the kids into an overloaded mini-van, said a heart-breaking goodbye to two decades of intense and joyful urban life and ministry in Mississippi, and drove away with tear-soaked eyes that said: Are we crazy? No act could possibly top this one.
We settled in this tiny Vermont village and for the first time gave ourselves permission to disengage from the high-minded busyness that had so consumed our lives. Mr. Activist, me, whose daily jogs had once passed an urban kid yelling “hey white honky” and elderly neighbors smiling from burglar-barred porches now jogged where hardly anybody locked their doors. I saw more moose (one) than black people, and had no responsibilities save a couple book projects and being a good father and husband.
Gradually this solitude unearthed vast treasures: Falling in love with my wife all over again. The inexplicable bond between grandparents and grandchildren, now separated by only a few grassy feet between our houses. Cross-country skiing with my mother. Road trips with my father. Family reading every evening with the children, and drawing closer to each of them. Though I’ve heard a few hundred too many Pokemon conversations. Adding to my knowledge of racism’s various breeds has been the shapes and colors of birds, from Red-Breasted Grosbeaks to Oregon Junkos. Here was a life and place that constantly reminded us that the psalmist did not say “BE BUSY, and know that I am God,” but “Be still.”
I never understood why anyone would live in a small town. Until I lived in Lincoln. A place where a woman named Judy both drives your children’s school bus and sings in your choir, along with Town Clerk Cathy. Where someone in town hears a black cat has been hit by a car, knows that you have one, and rushes down the street to your door in tears hoping it wasn’t yours (it wasn’t). Where people’s idea of noisy is living at the intersection of River Road and Quaker Street. Where the senior pastor and his wife offer you an eight-bedroom home upon first arrival. Where your father, the associate pastor, is the town truant officer. Where you worship with your librarians and firefighters, the caregivers and teachers and friends who embrace your children. Where everybody knows you by name, and very few fall through the cracks.
Such a place is no small gift in an age of shallow relationships and disintegrating community. You in this town have taught us a deep respect for those who work and love well in the boondocks. You in this place have taught us it is possible to learn as much about God in stillness as in busyness. We have taken far more than we have given, and you have embraced all of us in spite of it, and so you have taught us, too, about the meaning of grace.
Now, as Donna and I pick up the pace again and end this two years of sabbatical, we leave this village that thankfully remains small. We take both the lessons of Mississippi and the lessons of Lincoln into our next chapter. We will miss seeing Mt. Abe every day. Some things we won’t miss. When it snowed in April, Donna looked outside and said: “Don’t you just love the first snow of summer?”
We weren’t prepared to fall in love with you and this town and this church. The path worn between our house and my parents will fade, but the bonds to you and to them are indelible. I never expected to live near my parents again, or my children to have that gift, and see how good God is.
When we pull out next Sunday, once again our mini-van will be overloaded, and once again we will shed many tears. Are we crazy? It seems like no act can possibly top this one. Thank you for the gift.
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.
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