19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22, English Standard Version).
Willa Cather (1873-1947) set the plot and characters of O Pioneers! (1913) in the late 1800s on the vast challenging prairie of frontier Nebraska. As a young child, Alexandra Bergson had been brought to that land from Sweden by her parents. Her father died when she was only a young adult and he left his farm in her hands.
For the next three years her farm prospered along with those of the other immigrants in the area. Then came another three years when clouds fled the sky and farmers, confronted by drought, foreclosure, and despair, abandoned the land. Alexandra refused to budge.
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. The Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman (O Pioneers!, Vintage Classics, 1992, p. 33).
We’ll forgive Cather’s poetic license when she invokes some guardian spirit of the land because, however awkwardly, she points to an important truth for our day. In truth the Holy Spirit burns brightly in our hearts. It is this Holy Spirit, proceeding from Father and Son, who enables us to love God wholly and our human neighbors as ourselves. It is this same Spirit who enables us to love, as Alexandra did, our creaturely neighbors as well. Thanks be to God who blesses us with his love and blesses with love the land through us even as we are blessed by it.
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