I was born for uptown living.
True, the view from the maternity ward of the Mennonite village that first heard me squawk showed only flat Canadian prairie—not a mall in sight. But my parents soon moved me and my sibs to the big city, and, by the time I was a teen, I could shop nonstop from store opening to store closing. During senior high, my dramatic extroversion kicked into full force and I fought laryngitis from constant chattering. College years in Minneapolis put the polish on my love of metropolis and led to summer studies in Japan—Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka—where I gloried in the lights and crush and din of clustered humanity.
So I was totally unprepared when my cowboy groom swept me down a long gravel road to the vast and empty sand hills surrounding his secluded cattle ranch, where the ceaseless wind and the endless sky would bring me face to face with myself.
Only months into the marriage—before I’d yet learned to help round up the herd on horseback or cook for branding crews of a hundred—I experienced a pivotal moment, a tipping point in transition.
I was baptized into rural reality.
It was a blustery morning in April during my first calving season on the ranch. Not suspecting the crisis in store for me that day, I’d kissed my new husband goodbye at the door of our cozy bungalow as he set out for chores. I’d admired my choice of wedding stoneware as I washed up the few breakfast dishes, wearing rubber gloves to protect my delicate hands. I might even have perused the latest issue of the fashion magazine that was my connection to civilization. Now here I was in the bathroom, steam rising about me as I removed my elegant trousseau robe and dipped my pedicured toe into the tub full of fragrant bubbles.
Out of the blue, my husband started hammering on the bathroom door and yelling, “Open up!” I barely grabbed my wrap in time as he and his father broke in with a freezing newborn calf—slimy and shivering violently. “Oh, good!” they both exclaimed in surprised tones of approval, as though marveling that I demonstrated such foresight and rural mettle. “She’s got hot water all ready for us!” And then they plunged that filthy beast into my bridal bubble bath—and, oh, how that ghastly creature’s eyes rolled in ecstasy!
(Had it, in fact, lived, it might well have been tethered, bottle-fed, named “Pie,” and fattened for slaughter—as had Georgie, Porgie, and Puddin’ before it.)
This moment is symbolic of my own immersion into the grit and glory of cattle ranching, and the next two decades domesticated me out of my city ways. Sure, I longed for sophistication, fine dining, and foreign adventure (and in time my introverted, country-lovin’ husband—who’d never even eaten lasagna before meeting me—expanded his tastes to include classical music, foie gras,and international travel). But what I found during those years on the ranch I believe would have been lost to me had I remained a distracted city-dweller.
I was forced by the silence of the wilderness to listen for the voice of God.
Because of my upbringing, as a child I’d placed trust in Jesus Christ for the salvation of my soul. However, until my move to the ranch, my spirituality included a component of sociability: all my religious learning took place in a classroom or a pew or a youth group. Now my geographical isolation put most believers out of my reach. I managed to drive two hours on most Sundays for corporate worship, but I met God much more immediately and intimately through reading the Bible alone at the kitchen table, and raising my voice in prayer and song out in the wind among the sand dunes without another soul in sight.
My conversion from the public to the pasture refined me.
Father, Son, and Spirit continue to transform me through Scripture by renewing my mind, taming my appetite for the constant stimulation of others, and testing me to develop my discernment and keenness in practicing God’s will (Rom. 12:2). I have no doubt that He would have effected this transformation even if I’d held on to my city-slicker status (2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 1:6). And don’t get me wrong—I take every opportunity to shop for five-inch heels and silk scarves in Paris and Buenos Aires and Istanbul! But I faced my “dark night of the soul” out on Canada’s western plains and grasslands, where I learned to embrace the holy loneliness necessary to true, communing fellowship with God and others.
Of course, there’s no sin in loving civilization (the Tower of Babel notwithstanding)! But to serve humanity properly, we must have our spirituality in order. To that end, you might want to follow these steps:
Step #1: Recognize your setting. I was predisposed to approach God through social relationships. Emotionally, where do you “live”? How do your lifestyle and friendships influence your spiritual outlook? What is your natural bent, and can you see the potential limitations of your viewpoint?
Step #2: Face your conflict. Admitting the profound difference between my life in the city and my life on the ranch helped me pinpoint my underlying problem: I can get side-tracked spiritually by an audience. What “calf in the bubble bath” are you facing right now? How are you reacting and responding to your circumstances? At what point has your one-on-one relationship with God broken down?
Step #3: Discover your resolution. Pastoral tranquility was just what I needed to shut out metropolitan noise and pay attention to the voice of God. What distracts you from listening to Him speak in Scripture? How can you adjust your lifestyle to hear Him better? What will you do today to focus on your primary and foundational relationship with God?
(Article first appeared on the blog Patti’s Porch)
The Third Grace is set in the cities of Paris and Denver and on a farm in Nebraska’s sand hills, where the main character lives out some of my own urban/rural experiences (albeit in the opposite order–Aglaia raised in the country and migrated to the city, whereas I transitioned from city to Canadian sand hills–the boonies!). But this award-winning novel here: