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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Kansas theology

Like the plains, it is spacious, opening us to God's surprises

Kansas — the word means "people of the south wind." That's exactly right. Kansas is a place where wind, sun and storm are dominant features of life.

These forces are mysterious, even fearsome. But they also are instruments of bounty. Wind, sun and storm nurture the fruits of the earth. This explains why living in Kansas orients one toward transcendence. You feel subject to mysterious powers beyond your control.

The plains are in balance with the sky. You experience this when you stand on the prairie. Everything is simple and basic, yet colossal. You feel small and large at the same time. You're small compared to the expanse of sweeping plains and sky, yet large because the plains and sky draw people out. You feel grand and open.

God made the plains to produce wheat, a crop of the sun. Its slender stalk looks frail. All manner of maladies afflict it — wind, hail, disease, drought, too much rain. Yet it is hardy, producing a harvest even in difficult years.

In midsummer, the wheat grows ripe and shares the sun's color. The beauty of massive fields of waving wheat is stunning yet graceful. This is the bounty of heaven, raised up from earth, undulant upon the plains.

Living in Kansas orients one toward immanence as well as transcendence. Mysterious powers exist under our feet as well as in the sky. Mystery is all around us. We see it firsthand.

Kansas theology acknowledges the dark side of life. It is all-too-aware of tragedy and disaster. It knows that the instruments of bounty — sun, wind, storm, earth — can also be vehicles of devastation. The sun can wither the wheat. The wind rattles loose the grain and spills it on the ground. Storms beat down the tender stalks or shear them off.

Kansas theology is aware of the potential for disaster in everything, even things we normally consider good.

"People of the south wind" live on the boundary. It's a precarious place. The plains appear benign, even gentle. But an underside, the "shadow" side of reality, reminds us that all earthly things are equivocal, that no matter how benign they appear they carry a darkness within.

People of the plains know this. They don't need to be convinced of sin's duplicitous nature.

Kansas theology understands the cross. It knows that power is deceiving. It sees God in small things such as cradles and crosses. It recognizes that God is known in weak things such as seeds, which are hidden and small but grow with strange power.

This is why Kansas theology is about grace. It knows the darkness, but it also knows the feeling of the sun warm upon the face. It knows the shadow but also that the Spirit is deeper than the shadow and that God works mysteries in the heart of all things. Salvation is near.

The word salvation comes from a Hebrew word that means "to become large." Kansas theology knows this salvation. Like the prairies themselves, Kansas theology is spacious. It has room. It opens us. It knows a salvation that beckons us to become more than we are.

Like the sweeping wind, it points to a salvation that keeps reaching beyond, crossing all earthly boundaries. Who can say where God's spirit will move or upon whom, or how it will turn things around? Who knows what surprises God will work?

Kansas theology isn't upset by these questions. It loves them because it knows that salvation comes in the mysteries of God's grace, working in all things and places.


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