The Gospel According to Frog Hollow
Text: Mark 8:27-34
I have never traveled to Frog Hollow but at critical points in my life, I have found myself there. Some of you may already know that Frog Hollow is an actual place in the western part of Virginia. Though a native Virginian, I first heard of Frog Hollow from friends who moved there from Manitoba. Moving from one country to another and across numerous cultures, the late Jim and Norma Fairfield arrived in Frog Hollow some years back.
Jim kept a journal about their journey from Manitoba to Frog Hollow. “When we were first married,” he writes, “we were far too busy to think about such things as the reality of God or becoming part of a new creation. I know both Norma and I had an awareness of God. From time to time some event would make us look at the world around us with surprise; it wasn’t as it ‘should’ be, it was out of joint, tilted, savage. At those moments – almost out of the corner of the eye – we’d catch a glimpse of God . . . By the time we got to Frog Hollow, those glimpses had settled on Jesus as Lord of that . . . reality, but it was pretty much a flannelboard [reality] of Bible stories and expectations” (101).
As Mark tells the story about the journey of Jesus with his disciples to Jerusalem, they stop for lunch one day in Caesarea Philippi, a geographical crossroads at the time. I am pretty sure, though, that the name for that crossroads in America is Frog Hollow. It is the name for when a crossroads becomes much more than a geographical one.
About finding Frog Hollow at a crossroads time in his life, in their lives, Jim Fairfield writes: “It’s difficult to forecast life, especially when you are becoming something new in your soul or spirit or psyche. When we began to sense the presence of God – whoever he or she was – it started with angst: Life is good, so why do I feel so lousy?”” (3).
The Frog Hollow we come to know in Jim’s journal and in Mark’s Gospel is that unexpected place where we are stopped in our tracks even when life is really good and yet we sense something profound is missing. In Frog Hollow our pat religious responses do not work anymore. Frog Hollow is where we think that we have found the perfect hiding place, a place where even the living God cannot find us. And, yet, at this crossroads, our living Lord taps us on the shoulder and asks us: “What matters most to you?” “Who are you following?” “Am I no more to you than some interesting historical artifact, some figment of ancient religious imagination, some colorful collage of wishful spiritual thinking, or am I the One who keeps calling you out of darkness into light?”
There is no way out of Frog Hollow until you wrestle with Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples of Jesus have done all the research for the term paper and are happy to report what others are saying about Jesus. When Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” they wave their hands in the air to give the right answer. They have listened to all the gossip on the street and can share the gossip with ease. It is when Jesus directs the question to them that the ground starts to move beneath them and they know that they are at a crossroads like none they have ever known.
I bet there were more than a few sighs of relief from the other disciples when Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will go on to commend Peter as the rock on which he will build the church, but in Mark, the response of Jesus to Peter is not so celebratory. Jesus asks the question, Peter gives what seems to be the correct answer, and Jesus tells him to, well, “shut up.”
Peter pretty much thinks he has a good read on Jesus – the “Messiah.” Peter is all about following a Jesus who heals and dazzles, who makes fools of the religious uppity-ups, and who is bound to do much of whatever we ask him to do. The Peter we meet in Mark’s Gospel has a lot more to learn about Jesus, far more than he thinks he already knows.
“Our experiences in Frog Hollow,” Jim writes, “began to show us that it wasn’t that our reality included God but that God was the reality that included us” (66). Jesus needs Peter to know “that God was the reality that include(s) us.” You want to follow me, says Jesus, then get ready to live in that reality.
Jim continues: “The significance of Jesus, as we were beginning to discover in Frog Hollow is not that he worked miracles or began a new religion. Rather, he saw a greater reality . . . The [reality] he saw clashed with the world he moved in, a world not unlike our own now, where power and prestige and privilege made the rules for everyone else to live by. Jesus rejected that reality and described a greater one where the poor counted and where enemies forgave enemies” (57).
Some years back, I was granted a sabbatical to explore the life of the church in Europe. Most of the churches I saw were now restaurants or museums, or perhaps the most ironic transformation of all was in Evian, France, where the once town church is now the town casino. Many of the good people I met seemed to have little interest or need to believe in God, and most had carved out lives that never include church or prayer, praise or community.
This same phenomenon is becoming much more common in our own land now. I find myself wondering what kind of faith people are rejecting, what kind of church are they leaving behind. Are they saying farewell to Jesus, the living Lord, and rejecting anything to do with a lively, engaging, and creative community of Christ or are they saying good riddance to an archaic church that for too long has striven for privilege like Peter and has contributed to the devastation of the poor with self-righteous acts of charity rather than courageous ministries of justice.
Oddly enough, recently, I found myself smack in the middle of Frog Hollow. In a time when I was sorely tempted to lose faith in God’s reality, I was again reminded that God’s reality includes even me. Not realizing I was even in Frog Hollow, I was taken by surprise when I turned the corner and there stood Jesus who had a question for me, “Gary, who do you say that I am?” I was a bit annoyed by the question, because I had already answered that question at age 12 when I was confirmed at Hidenwood Presbyterian Church in Newport News and then again at age 24 when I graduated from Union Theological Seminary (now, Union Presbyterian Seminary) and again, each time that I accepted a new pastoral call.
Just when my temper was about to get the best of me, I noticed that the question Jesus was asking had a plural pronoun. Yes, the “you” in his question was meant for me, but not just me. You and I always answer his question not only individually but in community. You learn that in Frog Hollow, because it is a place where you learn that life is just too hard to survive alone and life at its hardest can be embraced when we recall that we all live within God’s reality.
On moving to Frog Hollow, Jim says, “One of the great burdens of prosperity is our isolation from each other; we don’t need neighbors any more, and our lives are diminished. There is serenity in community, in caring for those around us. In discovering what it meant to be neighbors, Norma and I began to find out who we were and why we’re here” (43).
The disciples in Mark’s Gospel rarely get it right and are hardly models for young Christians of every age. They are dense and dumb and too often expect the world to revolve around them. And, yet, Jesus keeps calling these ill-formed followers into community, even after they flee and deny, betray and desert him to the horrors of a Roman death squad. Jesus keeps calling them to holy crossroads, reminding them that they are part of God’s grand, mysterious reality.
Like the disciples in Mark, I am often surprised when I find myself in Frog Hollow. It is a holy place where we are not asked to have all our questions about Jesus resolved and all our doubts overcome, all our concerns about the church satisfied and all our frustrations about church life quelled. It is a holy crossroads where Jesus awaits us, asking us a question to which he provides the answer, reminding us that you and I are blessed beyond measure to live in the awesome reality of God and inviting us to set our internal GPS toward the One who has so much more to teach us, who forgives us when we stumble along the way, and who never tires of leading us from darkness into light.
Friends, I hope to see you one day in Frog Hollow.
*Thanks to James G.T. Fairfield for insights from his "Frog Hollow Journal."