It almost goes without saying that growing up in Northern Minnesota meant lakes. One could count on them for recreation in any and all seasons. Boating, fishing, water skiing, snowmobiling, and just relaxing about the lake was a way of life. And there were at least 10,000 of them from which to choose, so you could depend upon them being there. Just take your pick and enjoy.
Texas is a little different, especially the Panhandle, which in 1827 was known as The Great American Desert. When you look over the High Plans landscape you can see in the distance either ranchland or cropland with grain elevators in the distance embedded in small communities. Usually, it is dry. As a rancher friend of mine put it, “The next drought begins when the last rain ends.”
But twice in my tenure in the Panhandle, I witnessed a remarkable phenomenon. Following heavy, widespread rain, lakes appeared. Covering an average of about 30 acres each, they showed up. But these aren’t like the lakes that I grew up with. They are Playa Lakes. Next to these lakes are no cabins for vacation, no boats for adventure, and no bait shops for fishing. There is nothing on their shores except crops that were planted too close and standing in water and homes whose owners ignored the flood warnings. There were roads that were impassible because when there was no water, it was the best and easiest path for construction. And there were not just a few of these lakes. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website, there are “approximately 19,300 playas in the Texas High Plans.” Playa Lakes literally dotted the landscape.
Relatively small and lasting only as long as the water has not evaporated, these lakes are not a nuisance. They are a real blessing to ranch and farm communities, providing much-needed water for cattle and cotton as well as wildlife. It turns out that these lakes, among other things, support the second largest bird migration on the continent. While there are no fish to be eaten or even caught in a playa lake, there is vegetation grown that the birds love to eat, and there are invertebrates that thrive to be consumed by birds as well. They are critical for life in the Great American Desert.
So you may ask: “Why write about playa Lakes?” As I drive through my area, including the Texas High Plans, I think about district congregations. Some congregations may be like the lakes of Minnesota, where people come to gather all year round. They seem to be steady and stable. They are to be celebrated. Some people may even look at them “romantically,” defining them as the quintessential congregations that provide all of the programs, activities, and associations that characterize church for us. To be sure, these congregations bring life to their communities and to those who visit. I thank God for them.
But there are other congregations that are much more vulnerable to uncontrollable contextual considerations such as industries leaving town, families moving for better employment, children leaving for college to never return (unless to visit), or even retirees relocating. Our inevitable mortality also put some congregations at risk. Such may be characterized as a “playa congregation.”
Sometimes such congregations are strong and other times they seem invisible. But they are there—don’t doubt it. And they are essential for life in that place. Life is what they are about. The programs, activities, and resources may not be as prevalent as other congregations, but the Word is proclaimed and people live in joyful response to the Gospel.
This is profound. Why? Simply because the Word is life. I am always amazed and grateful when I see a “playa congregation,” the value of which is incalculable and, it could be said, critical. At the very least, without them life would be much different in that place, and less so in the ever-expanding Great American “Spiritual” Desert.
By Rev. Steve Misch
Mission and Ministry Facilitator, Area A