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The center of the United States.
Things fall apart, and it cannot hold.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
—“The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats
The center. The middle. The place of least extreme, the spinning point, the tack, the rudder, home.
Where is the center?
For the continent of North America, it’s Rugby, North Dakota (or, as claimed by others, Center, North Dakota). For the center of the nation, it’s near Lebanon, Kansas.
Twenty-three years ago, two friends and I drove down Highway 281 from the International Peace Gardens on the Canadian border all the way down to Brownsville, Texas. We wanted a kind of alternative Route 66 road trip. I was using an old 35mm camera, with black and white film. The heat of the summer caused something to gum up and malfunction causing me to lose most of the photos from Nebraska as I huddled in the back seat of the car with blankets piled over my head in an attempt to create a makeshift darkroom to fix the jammed camera in the midst of the blazing sun and heat.
By the time we rolled into Kansas, the camera was mostly working, though back in the camera film days, you didn’t take 20 photos of the same thing at different angles. You took only a few, and subsequently, my memories became few.
That is, until I started traveling those same places again.
On a recent road trip to Texas, traveling a similar path down the middle of the nation, digital photos now my mainstay, I took hundreds of photos. And I saw some surprising sameness through my camera and out the truck window.
Oh sure, I noticed some changes to the middle of the nation, which is to be expected after twenty years. Dairy Queen had reigned supreme 23 years ago, but now I saw Sonic everywhere. I made my friend try Runzain Nebraska, something I don’t remember seeing as much back then, and while he said it was “just okay” I told him he was wrong.
It was the unchanged aspect that caught my eye, considering the geopolitical and cultural upheaval this nation has gone through since I last came this way. After two decades, some things had resisted change and I was pleasantly surprised.
The center of the nation seems to be holding, at first glance, geographically speaking.
Back in 2000, I took two photos of a small chapel and its interior, located near the monument marker at the geographical center of the U.S. Twenty-three years later, they’ve remade the chapel and expanded the site, but there is still some striking similarity, starting with the fact that a Christian chapel is still allowed to be there.
Considering the decay of this nation, it might have surprised you to know that such a chapel exists at its center. Bright white, it sits next to the modest monument and is full of the clear message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Outside the chapel, on rocks and the cement, are Bible verses and words written in Hebrew. Some Christians from the nation of Lebanon had attempted to plant a small cedar tree near the chapel, though it had died in the fierce Kansas drought. Inside the chapel were free Bibles and pamphlets about Jesus on a rack on the wall. A comment box shared table space with a small wind-up music box that played “Amazing Grace.”
“Thank you for this place,” I wrote on a slip of paper, and tucked it into the comment box. Though thankful, I still felt sadness.
It meant a lot to me, this peaceful Christian chapel at the center of the nation, but it could not hold this nation on course. Yeats wrote in his poem “The Second Coming” about the center failing to hold, of things spinning out of control, and of a coming antichrist.
The antichrist (“against Christ”) spirit is thriving and celebrated in this nation, and we see it everywhere right now. The month of June touts itself as about love, sliding into churches by suggesting that because God is love and love is love—making no account for a holy God—the math is clear. But ours is a twisted and distorted definition of love, an antichrist spirit that says if you don’t agree that “love is love” and that if you don’t celebrate it with pride, you’re full of hate. We desperately need the nuance found in the Koine Greek of the New Testament when we talk about the different kinds of love, and which of that love is God, because love isn’t love when the antichrist spirit spins ever closer to the heart of the nation.
We couldn’t stay at that chapel. There were other places to go.
As the tires on the truck slapped the pavement and we drove down to Ft. Worth, back up through Oklahoma, Kansas City, and eventually the Dakotas (“God’s country!”), I could see the center hasn’t held at all.
We know that God holds all things together, and in recent years the evidence of him loosening his grip (at humanity’s request, mind you) shows everywhere. We don’t want him in our schools, our politics, our lives, and even, sadly, our churches. We arrogantly think that everything, all our human systems, runs on its own. We can handle the weather, the food supply, governance, geopolitics, the economy—we don’t need God. Everything has operated the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future, we think. We are the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul (if we have one) and we will hold the center ourselves.
When the center of a nation’s people is self, the center of the nation cannot hold.
And so God begins removing his hand of protection and the center starts wobbling because nothing holds together without him.
In Kansas, the winter wheat was as short as I’d seen, some of the towns looking nearly as withered as the crop. It was a continuation of the drought devastation I’d seen a year earlier. A trip to Abilene and President Eisenhower’s museum served only as a reminder of the lost work ethic we once had as a nation.
At the very edge of the Oklahoma border with Texas, just as you emerge from some beautiful landscape that screams God’s glory, sits a monstrous casino that mimics the architecture of famous cities worldwide. Signs touting marijuana have laced the Oklahoma highways leading up to it, always with a green first-aid symbol as if it were a helpful, healthy thing to consume drugs. Those signs disappeared as we crossed into Texas and came face-to-face with a large adult novelty superstore encouraging folks on the road to come on in.
Fill your body with THC and your mind with filth, and gamble some money away, too.
In Oklahoma City, we toured the National Memorial Museum, and the horrors of what was done that day were made terrifyingly real. As Timothy McVeigh went to his death in prison, several years later, he had one thing to say: I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.
In Kansas City, we abandoned geocaching as we wandered through a trash-filled park, located high on a hill with an otherwise lovely vista, that had spray-painted words indicating, on the cracked sidewalk, which way to go to buy drugs and making a point of saying that it was a great place to do so. We could see a man sprawled out near a statue of a Native American chief overlooking the city and the nearby World War I museum. He was drinking at 9 a.m. In the parking lot below were three parked vehicles, one with a young woman rocking back and forth in her car.
“I love to travel, but I love to go home,” I said to my friend later, somewhere at the edge of Iowa as the sun was dropping in the western sky. This world is not my home.
America is a big, beautiful country but when you get down close and on the ground, it’s falling apart.
If you get to Lebanon, Kansas, go to the center of the nation and say a prayer. There’s a fine chapel waiting for you to do so. Go quickly. The center won’t hold much longer.