When a car comes whipping around a curve on the country road where I’m running, I have to jump onto the shoulder of tall grass. My world collides with that of the grasshopper. As my big human feet come crashing into their turf, they ricochet frantically in all directions. They are as surprised by my trespassing as I am by their scratchy undersides when they land on my skin. Our contact is brief! They leap off of me before I can swat them away.
This encounter with nature hearkens me back to the field behind my house in Omaha, Nebraska. We lived in a newer development, at the top of a hill on Dagmar Avenue. I spent five years of my childhood there when my dad was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base as a chaplain. From age four to nine I lived in a cozy neighborhood where friends were just a house away and we met up in each others’ cement basements to survive another episode of “Dark Shadows!” We felt safe riding our bikes seemingly long distances for penny candy at Pep’s convenience store. There was a field behind our house that seemed expansive. It afforded opportunity for different activities for neighborhood children. The shared backyard sloped from our house at the top all the way down to the bottom of the hill. There were no fences subdividing the hill into impassable parcels. There were no mean homeowners who told us to “Keep off the lawn!” In the winter we would sled all the way down those backyards gleefully and climb right back up to do it all over again.
In the summer that field became a whole new world full of interactive creatures! I sashayed through the weeds while grasshoppers made exit launches before my footsteps. I was both cautious and fascinated by these airborne friends. They had their own daily agenda to which I became privy when I entered their domain. They seldom landed on me, seeming just as apprehensive of encountering me directly as I was of them. Grasshoppers coexisted with other insect friends. Once a bee buzzed near me. I had been advised to freeze if a bee landed on me so it wouldn’t be provoked into stinging. Obediently I stood perfectly still as it landed on my head—and stung me! I ran through the tall grass to arrive home, wailing in pain but more out of a sense of betrayal. The bee hadn’t followed the rules! My mother reassured me to a place of renewed trust.
“God brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. (Ps 18:19)
After four years of growing up there, my dad flew out to Taiwan, where he would serve on a military base for a year. My mother was left in Nebraska with five daughters, stretching in age from two months to ten years. I was old enough (nine years old) to understand goodbye but too young to know how to put it into words. The evening he departed I headed out to the hill behind our house. I climbed to the highest point, looking down at the expanse of conjoined lawns. There were no laughing children, sledding with the sting of snow on their faces. Even the grasshoppers had settled down for the night. I was alone with my thoughts. God sat with me as I tried to wrap my head and my heart around my dad’s absence. That wide open space was a friend to me, a hospitable site even when we had climbed up it to get a view of a tornado swirling in the distance. It was an extension of our home which was crowded with siblings. The lighted windows of our house against a dark Nebraska sky offered security. But the field gave me a natural vista with room for my young reflections.
“You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. (Ps.4:1)
As the Babylonians advanced on Israel, a superpower that crushed anything in its path, the Hebrew people must have felt the need to scatter like grasshoppers. News of the army brutality preceded them so that those in their path assumed they were doomed. As most people hunkered down in their homes, the prophet Jeremiah bought a field. Families cowered together, protecting their elders and children. But Jeremiah found an abandoned field for sale in the middle of the chaos and bought it! “What an idiot,” the townspeople must have thought as they peered from behind heavy curtains. “Our town will be destroyed and he will be left with a scorched field.” Aware of their judgment, Jeremiah bought a field anyway.
This faithful prophet’s goal was not to buy a plot of land where he could teach his children about nature or find a haven away from worldly concerns. Jeremiah wanted to show his people that he believed in this land which held such great significance for them. Their memories didn’t need to be forsaken. He bought it to give hope to God’s people who assumed they had been forgotten. Soon the field would become a highway through which all ages of Israelites marched as a conquered people. With soldiers on either side of an unending chain of humanity, they were marched to Babylon as slaves. Grasshoppers and other animals who claimed this field as home would have fled in all directions. Such an unlikely crossroads of besieged captives and scattering creatures! All were held in the hand of a God who allows us to carve out our own destiny.
“Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place (Ps. 118:5)
Jeremiah teaches us a crucial lesson as people of faith. When facing certain demise, we are called to offer hope. When everyone else is divesting of their responsibility to fellow human beings, we Christians invest in ministry to the least of these. We see value where others only see defeat. When a tidal wave washes away whole families and destroys a village in an instant, we set about to restore the community. When our neighbors lose everything in the fury of Hurricane Florence, we dig deep in our pockets and contribute to the rebuilding efforts. When folks stand on the sidelines of crises, placing blame and playing politics, we roll up our sleeves and bring in a truck-full of hope. We buy into their reality and assure people that they are not alone.
That Nebraska field behind my house played a role in my faith development as a child. It was communal. My parents organized a “Tent-In” one night, allowing us each to invite several friends to spend the night together in tents. The parents laughed together while we made s’mores over a campfire and shooed away the grasshoppers who seemed anxious to be included in the fun. We emerged through the canvas doorways the next morning with serious bedhead and some wonderful memories. But I also remember looking for our missing cat in the field and finding her on the far edge, killed by a dog. My father retrieved her and we brought her across the expanse of tall grasses to our backyard where she was buried with our prayers and our tears. Life and death, joy and sorrow, community and solitude were housed in that broad space.
Jeremiah bought a field—with all that lived in it—to tell a despondent population that God is always near even when our future seems bleak. Jeremiah bought a field as an act of solidarity with his own people who had given up on their God. Jeremiah bought a field to remind the Israelites that, especially when they felt as insignificant as grasshoppers, God had them in view. Jeremiah bought a field. Crazy, right?!
“You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.” (Ps.18:36)