From Montana

My college classmate and life-long friend Steve Garnass-Holmes preached his last sermon on the same Sunday as I. Steve is a sixth-generation United Methodist minister who served congregations in Montana, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Our careers have paralleled each other, but we served in different denominations and always in different places. Steve grew up just two houses away from the home of my wife’s family and just a few blocks from the campus of Rocky Mountain College, where we were both students in the 1970’s. We weren’t in the same class, but we are the same age. He posted a note on FaceBook the day before yesterday that caught my attention:

“When I registered to vote I had to raise my right hand and swear an oath renouncing residency in any other place. As I did, I didn’t think of Massachusetts, or even New Hampshire. I thought of Montana. Yeah, I live in Maine, but still, I’m really from Montana.”

We’ve been experiencing a similar sense of disorientation about location and place. As we look at our careers, it seems a bit of a mystery about where we have lived. Part of being a minister is trying to carefully listen to God’s call. God’s call can be very different from what we want. When ministers consider where to go, they seek to respond to need and call. When we went from Montana to attend theological seminary in Chicago, I assumed that we would be returning to Montana as soon as we completed our educations. But there were no congregations of the United Church of Christ in Montana who were seeking ministers when we graduated. We received a call from congregations in North Dakota and our experience was wonderful. We served good, faithful people in a beautiful place. We kept our eyes on Montana. We sent our profiles (a kind of resume for UCC ministers) to several congregations and a chaplaincy in Montana before receiving a call to serve in Idaho. While in Idaho we continued to occasionally consider calls to Montana congregations, but none came. After we moved to South Dakota, we applied for positions in Montana. No call ever came to serve in that place.

I am not sad about that. We have had a wonderful career and we have been blessed to serve congregations that are loving and treat their ministers well. Our children have lived in wonderful places, received good educations and grown into adults who contribute a lot to their communities.

Still it is interesting to think of the quirks of our stories that affect place. I know a bit more about Steve’s story. It was not inevitable that he would grow up with a strong attachment to Montana. Neither of his parents were native Montanans. They came from California and their path to Montana wasn’t a direct one. In fact, very early in his career, Steve’s Father served Canyon Lake United Methodist Church here in Rapid City. That congregation has had some very long pastorates. The pastor who was serving them when we moved to Rapid City continued to serve them for more than 20 years, an anomaly among UMC congregations. It is not inconceivable that Steve’s father would have continued his career in South Dakota rather than make the move to serve as a college chaplain in Montana. Had that been the case, we would have not met the family and gotten to know them. As it turned out, the long-term phase of that career was as chaplain of the college we attended and the college his sons attended and we became lifelong friends even though we have since lived in different states.

Driving through Montana in the last couple of days reminded us of the beauty and grandeur of the state. We love Montana places and we have many good friends in that state. It will, however, continue to be a drive-through state for us. Our friend Steve and his wife are retiring in Maine and he posted a picture of their car with Maine license plates. We are headed to another corner of the US. We are preparing to move to Washington, though our cars still sport South Dakota plates. It will take us longer to make the move than was the case for our colleague and friend.

Still, in some ways, we think of ourselves as Montanans even though we’ve lived in South Dakota more years than we lived in Montana. The place where you start out seems to always have a claim on our emotions.

On July 4, Steve posted a quote from the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman”

"This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

We have been blessed with some incredible friends over the years and it is amazing how much we have shared the journey with others who have been physically distant from the place where we have found ourselves. There is a bit of Montana in us even though we’ve lived in other places. And there is a lot of South Dakota that is in us as we prepare to move to a new home. But there have always been and will always be some incredible people who also are a part of the great poem of our lives. This will continue to be our story.

More verses of the poem are yet to come.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!