Mountain Man’s Ache for Solitude and Community

Mountain Man’s Ache for Solitude and Community

Few have severed themselves from society and lived off the land like the Free Trappers of the fur-trade era that peaked in popularity around 1840. While a genuine fixture of the American West, the fiction surrounding their lives has become inextricably mixed with the campfire stories that arose around them. They were men as wild as the landscape they called home, so it is not surprising that their idiosyncrasies morphed into the stuff of legends. It is that mixture of fact and tall tale that swirls around Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (1965), a historical novel rooted in the story of John “Liver-eatin’” Johnson, and one told well enough to have helped inspire the breathtaking Sydney Pollack film, Jeremiah Johnson (1972).

While Pollack’s adaptation begins with a depiction of Johnson, played by Robert Redford, as a greenhorn learning the hard way how to survive in the land traversed by Louis and Clark, Fisher’s novel introduces us to Sam Minard as a seasoned man of the mountains. Sam’s ethos is rooted in what is known of John Johnson, and the violence that earned him the monikers “Liver-eatin’” and “Crow Killer” are on full-display, though not until some one hundred pages into the narrative. At the outset, Minard is instead purely a larger than life renaissance mountain man. Standing at six foot four and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds, he was rightly named Samson for his size, but his delight in and lust for life were more in tune with Solomon.

“His passions were love of life, mortal combat with a worthy foe, good music, good food, and that quality of nature which would compel a poet to say, a hundred years later, that its heartbreaking beauty would remain when there would no longer be a heart to break for it.”

Good coffee and pipe full of tobacco might be added to the list, though for Sam those items could have neatly fit in the category of good food. His love for good music found its expression in songs played on his mouth harp that ranged from love songs to hymns to the arias and symphonies of Beethoven, Hayden, and other masters whom his father had introduced him to. His love for food had its foundation in biscuits and then flowed to all the wild plants and game that filled the land he lived in. Sam did more than simply suck all the marrow out of life – he fried elk steaks in it and let it serve as a worthy substitute for butter.

His loves for music and food both served his overwhelming love for the world the Creator had given. He took delight in the petals of the wildflowers and the violence of the grizzly, and he expressed his gratitude and wonder at all that he beheld by seeking to accompany a mountain range or thunderstorm with the appropriate soundtrack, whether on his harmonica or through belting out songs and sonatas with abandon. His elaborate feasts celebrated every ounce of the berries and buffalo that graced his plate, and he relished all the scents and tastes that accompanied his cooking.

It was not just Sam, but all mountain men lived the way they did in part because of love for the land, usually coupled with an ache to be free. Fisher writes,

“In warm weather no mountain man worth his buckskin ever crawled under a roof, except the spreading branches of a fir, or a juniper arbor, or a buffalo robe draped across a couple of poles. If you loved the world the Creator had made for you, you did not shut out the blue heaven and its lights, or lie in foul air in a stuffy room, when in a bed outside you could smell the morning and watch its mother-of-pearl light softly touch the hills.”

Yet even among the mountain men, Sam was said to be unique. One of his fellow free trappers said of him, “I’ve never known a man who loves life like Sam. Every hour for him is a golden nugget.”

It was this love of the land and zeal for life that drew me to read about these rugged men who learned to not only survive in the wilderness of the west but to drink deep from its rivers and sigh with satisfaction. It would seem that there is a dream in us all as old as the soul of man that yearns to be free enough to rest and rejoice in the world we have been place in. It’s a dream rooted in the gift given to Adam and Eve that is now scarred by the evil that resides within our hearts and the world we inhabit.

In my honest moments I see that my dreams of mountain life are a foolish romanticism that looks to the peaks and blithely considers a life lived in their shadows. I may be able to backpack for a week or so, but the spirit and strength of Sam Minard are not in me. Few of us would really last long in such a way of life, but the allure of the mountain man remains – the call of the wild beckoning us to solitude and contentment where a roof is never missed.

Yet despite his joy in the unhindered life he led, Sam was overwhelmed with a longing for companionship; “under his bluff and reticent surface were emotional channels in which feeling ran heavy and warm.” His heart had been stolen by the daughter of a chief in the Flathead tribe, and he eventually made her his wife. As Fisher describes the days after their marriage, the echoes of Eden overflow as Sam and Lotus, the name he gave to his bride, quietly waltz into love to the tune of Sam’s harmonica set against the backdrop of unadulterated lakes and never ending mountain ranges. The rugged individualist who loved the free life of the mountain men found his greatest joy to be a companion with whom to share it all.

Sadly, Sam’s Eden went the way of the original, and the void that appears is what fuels the remainder of his tale. Yet the tragedy of this shattered union painfully reveals the beautiful truth that while created to rejoice in creation and its Creator, we are called to do so in the context of relationship. What the mountain men understood about love for life was skewed by their suppression of the longing for relationships. And suppression it was. However they loved and longed for loneliness, they longed for companionship as well, and they found it in one another. The fraternity they enjoyed was a small one, but one filled with mutual admiration and respect. Their meetings were brief and often close to silent, but they found solace in one another. The trading post served not only as a place to gather supplies; it was a yearly congregating to collect news of how brothers had faired in the harshness of the wild.

Beyond each other, they cared for Kate Bowden, a woman whose husband, two sons, and daughter had been slaughtered when they first arrived on the edge of the West. It was Sam who first met her; he buried her children on a hillside and built a cabin nearby, knowing that Kate could not leave the bodies of her family. She lived the remainder of her days between this world and the next, devoting herself only to tending the flowers of her children’s graves and waiting for the appearance of their angels in the light of the moon. It was the mountain men, seeing in her devotion the love of a mother they all yearned for, who did all they could to protect her from harm and provide for her needs. She never spoke to anyone but her children, but the free trappers spoke to her in word and deed. They called her crazy, but they cared for her deeply.

I find in my heart alongside the longing for mountain solitude the same ache to know and be known. Certainly the canvas of creation is a place to know our Maker in a deep way. Bernard of Clairvaux has said, “You will discover things in the woods that you never found in books. Stones and trees will teach you things that you never heard from your school teachers.” The psalmist tells us that the heavens are declaring the glory of God, and the sky is shouting about who he is.

And yet there are wonders found in the faces of others that no rock can ever reflect. Agur spoke of things too wonderful for him in Proverbs 31. They included the way of an eagle in the sky and the way of a serpent on a rock, but it would seem that he closed with the most astounding: the way of a man with a maid. Watch all the mating dances of birds you like, nothing will compare to the bleachers at a Friday night football game or the kiss of couple whose lips have just spoken vows of lifelong love and fidelity. Consider a doe’s care for her fawn, but marvel at the mother who tenderly and tirelessly nurses her helpless infant. Trees can be teachers, but there is wisdom that only the beauty and pain of friends and enemies and fellowmen and women can impart. A retreat to the hills from both the gifts and the grit that we find in others is needed at times, but we will almost always return ready to be back in the presence of people.

As we return, we do not need to forsake the pleasures that Sam sought – those of music and food and the wildness of the world. Rather we learn to rejoice in all of those things with others by our sides. What is a feast that is not shared other than a waste of good food? Donuts are bought by the dozen because they are supposed to be put on the break table as fuel for relationship or brought through the front door to the cheers of sprinkle-loving toddlers. Our headphones may provide a pure listening experience, but there is nothing like enjoying our favorite music surrounded by friends and strangers who are equally moved by the melodies and lyrics. We can stand astride a mountain peak with our arms lifted high, but we can also embrace a fellow traveler in the shared wonder of life and love.

As those created in the image of the Triune God, we rejoice in all that He has made, but we also long to rejoice in what he has made alongside those whom he has made. Yet in all of these yearnings we find a deeper hunger still: to know and be known by the Author of it all. This is the passion we were created for. This is true love of life.

The End of the Retreat

The End of the Retreat

The stark silence of midday prayer is broken
By the rhythmic buzz of a fly
Incessantly beating his body
Against the tranquil stained glass
Behind the bent worshipers.
Having been wonderfully warmed by the silence and solitude,
He now begs to be released –
To try his wings once again on the rustling breeze
And to feel the bright heat of the noon sun.
Besides, he is expected to be home for dinner,
And someone hinted that ice cream is on the menu.

Preparing for Rest

Preparing for Rest

One of the busiest weeks of a person’s year could be the week before a vacation. Beyond the necessity of packing, the covering of normal duties at home, work, and in other spheres of life requires a large amount of forethought and planning. After all of that preparation, the final moment before pulling out of the driveway is pregnant with the question, “Did we forget anything?” Not only do we not want to forget to bring something important, but we want to be sure that we have fully dealt with everything we are leaving behind.

Such planning is not only a prerequisite for a week of relaxation, but for any period of rest. Rest cannot happen apart from the hard work of preparation. While we may be able to ignore and put off certain responsibilities as we seek a moment of peace, if we are going to genuinely rest, it’s going to take some effort.

It makes sense that rest naturally follows hard work. If we consider the great day of rest in Scripture, the Sabbath, we find that the first day of rest was practiced by God himself after six days of work – six days of preparation and filling, all leading to a time for reflecting on and rejoicing in all he had made. That model of the Sabbath from the very beginning then informed the later law of ceasing from work on the last day of the week, with the understood necessity of hard work and preparation to make that day of rest possible. If you can’t bake bread or grind grain or slaughter your animals or start a fire on the following day, then you’re going to need to get things rolling the day before. And while that extra work makes one day harder, it prepares the way for the following day to be one of rest and joy. The planning is worth it because it leads to true rest.

Often, instead of preparing for rest by working hard, we try to sneak into rest by ignoring responsibility. Yes, the dishes need done, we’re going to have to eat at some point, and that call is probably work letting me know that I failed to finish a necessary project, but I am going to sit on this couch and “rest.” We imagine that filling our eyes and ears with the latest Netflix release will sweep away the nagging feeling that our leisure is really laziness and neglect. But when the credits roll, we find that the flood of responsibilities we shunned sweeps away any temporary rest we felt. We may have been entertained, or even found a bit of relaxation, but the final product doesn’t feel like true rest.

Certainly there are moments when we can simply sit down and find a moment of unexpected calm. We should be wise enough to embrace those gifts and not rush past them in an effort to not lose our prized position in the rat race. Yet it would also seem wise to value regularly scheduled rest that we rigorously prepare for – a rest that extends not only to our physical bodies, but to our minds and hearts. A rest that calls us to rejoice in all the good gifts the Father has given.

But we should be careful to not idealize the preparation or the rest. No matter how much we plan, we will surely forget something. It will flood our minds like the question of whether or not we locked the door before heading to the beach, threatening to pull us from our rest into work and worry. It’s those moments that remind us that rest is ultimately an act of faith and trust. Our preparation is never perfect, and even if we get everything covered, we may still wonder if certain things can go on without us present. Rest then moves from rigorous preparation to a fight of faith. Rest calls us to trust in the sovereign goodness of our Father and the truth that he holds all things together by the word of his power, not us. He then is the source of all true rest, both from physical toil and from the curse of sin and death.

As Jesus calls us to find rest for our souls in him, he does not call us to prepare in the same way we might for earthly rest. He simply tells us to come to him. To cease striving. Our work to find soul rest prepares us for resting in Christ in a different but similar way as it opens our eyes to the reality that no preparation or effort on our part can secure the true rest found in knowing our sins forgiven and our souls secured in Christ as we wait for the eternal rest that is to come. We don’t work our way into that rest or sneak into it; we joyfully enter into it by faith.

Fall Nostalgia

Fall Nostalgia

A crisp is felt in the air
As evening settles in more easily and early,
Its darkness refusing more and more to flee with each new day.
Yet the falling of the leaves and the smell of their funeral pyres
Evoke, not bleakness, but warm nostalgia,
As now bare branches form a doorway into the past.

Memories of childhood and adolescence
Recall a now gilded time of hayrides and harvest festivals,
Of apple picking and apple cider,
Of pumpkin carving and pumpkin pie,
Of leaf piles raked, not to be bagged and dragged to the curb,
But to be leapt into and redistributed over the browning, damp grass.
Of football games with oft disputed scores
Played in backyards by young boys who soon shed their jackets
To run with flushed cheeks and visible breath through the agreed upon pylons.
Of football games where the score was of no concern
If the right person sat near you in the swarming bleachers.
Of football games that served as the background score to the gathering of family,
Punctuated by the smell of fresh coffee and the sight of endless desserts.

What bleakness there could be to the passing of warm days and long nights,
And to the slow death of the life seen in green leaves and the fruit of the earth.
Yet new life springs from the falling leaves,
As the crisp in the air draws us
Into our memories, into our homes, and into one another’s hearts.

The Trail of Knowing God

The Trail of Knowing God

There are beauties of God’s character seen at the trailhead.
The wildflowers bloom and the arch of the trees
Create a door in which we are welcomed to stand and stare at Him.
He is not hiding,
Nor does he turn from those who seek him.

Yet from that vantage point, step stones rise and round a bend,
Beckoning us to journey beyond the doorway –
To come in and know him better.
Simple signs tell of destinations often traveled to
And worth traveling to often,
And the slightest effort often parts the trees
Revealing quiet wonders
And thunderous revelations.

Yet there are still more breathtaking views
Down into the hollows of less trod paths,
Up knolls and hills and mountains,
That will take time to get to.
They must be fought for,
Legs burning, feet slipping, hands grasping,
Heart pounding, lungs gasping for breath
Only to have our breath taken away
By the wonders that the pain and perseverance have bought.

We can now walk the ridgelines of deeper intimacy,
Catching our breath long enough to sigh and smile,
Only to descend into a place unfamiliar.
A place where all we can do is keep walking, trusting that something is coming.
Trusting that the next bend will make all the slogging forward worth it.
And at that final bend, the last one we are willing to turn before giving up,
We will find an artisan well.
We will step in the waters of a beautiful brook as it slides across smooth slate.
We will wander and discover waterfalls of mercy we hadn’t even been looking for.
We will climb mountains of joy with joy,
Knowing the view from the top is worth all it costs.
We will be content to be a bit lost at times,
If only we might be surprised to sovereignly stumble upon
The fathomless depths of all our God is.

Imperfect Pens and People

Imperfect Pens and People

Based on a brief internet search, I can confidently say that there is no 3415 Bardston Road in the United States. There is a Bardston Drive in Dublin, Ohio, and a Bardston Ave in Orlando, Florida, but no Bardston Road and none with a number 3415 along its curb. And yet the 250 pens that I received in the mail proclaim proudly, in bold white letters set against four brilliant colors, that Grace Fellowship Church can be found at 3415 Bardston Road.

When I broke the tape and opened their small box, they looked lovely – a rainbow of writing utensils emblazoned with the vital statistics of our little community. The logo looked crisp, and everything was more legible than I had imagined when designing them on the company’s website. While the kids and I pulled them out to decide on our favorite color, my wife calmly picked up a green pen and stated simply, “They spelled Bardstown wrong.” A closer look at the red one in my hand revealed that indeed they had – it was as plain as day: “3415 Bardston Rd.” Yet what was not clear in my mind was the assertion that they had spelled it wrong.

A quick check of my email and a look at the proofs that had been sent confirmed the uncomfortable truth that I knew all along: they had not spelled Bardstown wrong – I had. As much as I had wanted to blame someone else for the missing “w,” I alone was guilty, and now I had a box of 250 witnesses that could click their proverbial tongues and remind me that I am not perfect.

Of course, I know I’m not perfect – who, besides a four year old has the audacity to claim they have never done anything wrong? I know my failures better than anyone else because I know my heart better than I know anyone else’s. In a conversation, I will gladly admit my shortcomings and sins. I’ll even, in guarded moments, announce on social media that my life is not always the smiley dream that my profile picture portrays.

But for all that knowledge and the occasional admission, I spend a good bit of time trying to play the part of a person and a pastor who has it (almost) all together. And if that is my brand, then I really have no interest in sending out an army of 250 representatives to proclaim in four-color stereo, “Come to Grace Fellowship Church: the church that can’t spell its street name correctly.” That’s what makes it even worse – I’ve dragged my church into the mess of my mediocrity.

The good thing is that I can easily admit my mistake to my church family. They watch me week after week stumble and trip on Sunday mornings, and they graciously continue to stand with me. We value honesty and transparency as a church; we want to foster a community where it’s ok to not be ok. Yet the thought that these imperfect pens would become for some who have never met us the sole representation of our church (and me), was hard to swallow. It tasted a lot like pride.

My wife, the unintentional bearer of the bad news, was the first to put the right spin on things and correct my conceit. “Maybe these pens can let people know that we’re not perfect, so they don’t have to be perfect to come to our church.” I’d like to say I agreed with her right away, but it took a minute for me to see that my slain vanity was something to rejoice in, and that imperfect pens could provide more truth in advertising than perfect ones. Still, I was slowly making peace with the pens.

The truth they spoke that had at first been wounding slowly became the thing that brought healing. Yes, I’m not perfect. Our church is not perfect. So maybe our pens shouldn’t be perfect, because none of God’s children are. Not once has he picked up a perfect church led by a perfect pastor to write his continuing story of redemption. Rather he chooses churches filled with misspellings who are despised and mocked by the world, so that he can make all the wise look foolish and show the world that he alone deserves the glory for all that he has composed.

All that said, the next time I order pens, I’ll make sure the address is right. But for now, you can find us at 3415 Bardston Road. I’ve got a pen waiting for you.

Beauty That Brings Tears

Beauty That Brings Tears

In the movie, The Mission, there is a hauntingly beautiful melody called “Gabriel’s Oboe” that swims in the storm of emotions that fills the film’s storyline. It’s a song that captures the poignancy of the heart-breaking plot mixed with the breathtaking scenery, as well as the triumph and tragedy of all that transpires. It’s a song that fills me with emotion, partly because of the themes in the movie, but much more because of its ties to a personal event.

“Gabriel’s Oboe” is the song my sister-in-law walked down the aisle to at her wedding, and when I hear that plaintive oboe, my mind is filled with the beauty of that warm June morning when we sat amongst a grove of walnut trees as witnesses to a couple committing to one another for as long as they both shall live. I am taken back to the moment just before my two oldest girls, four and nearly two years old at the time, walked through the grass in their white flower girl dresses. Rehearsal had been a disaster, and I assumed there was no way they would make it to the finish line that afternoon. The morning of the ceremony, the younger of the two had decided that she wanted nothing to do with her petal-filled basket, but seconds before her big moment she made it clear that she wasn’t going to share with her sister nor would she go down the aisle without it.

As I sprinted to grab her basket, I wondered why. “Why am I doing this? She’s just going to cry and stay at the back with me.” But then, moments later, as “Gabriel’s Oboe” filled our ears, my little girls flawlessly did their flower girl thing. I can still see them, dressed in white, cautiously walking away from me. It was such a joy-filled moment, and yet I was filled with a sorrow of sorts. As much as I had wanted them to walk down that aisle, I now desperately wanted them to come back. The emotion of those brief seconds, which even now wants to well up in tears, is complicated.

We typically place tears in one of two categories – they are either tears of joy or tears of sadness. There are funeral tears or wedding tears. There are the tears at a soldier’s death or tears at a soldier’s return. There are tears on Good Friday or tears on Easter. But such categories are much too simplistic for the intricacies of the human experience. There are certainly times when they fit, but so often the boxes labeled “joy” or “sadness” can’t hold all that we are feeling.

When tears fill my eyes at the sound of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” they are not simply tears of sorrow or tears of joy, but they are tears in response to an inexplicable beauty. There was such joy that day – the joining of two lives into one, the light of the sun filtering through the trees, and the sight of children spreading petals in the grass. And there was sadness as well – the giving away of a daughter and son, the absence of those whose death kept them from the joy of it all, and, for me, the thought that one day those little girls would walk down a petal strewn aisle holding my arm. It was all so heartbreakingly beautiful.

Crying is a mysterious thing. Why else have nearly all of us choked out the words, “I don’t know why I’m crying”? I’ve seen people weeping in the depths of grief suddenly smile and laugh as the same tears fall. I’ve seen laughter morph into deep sorrow. And I’ve watched my wife laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks. Tears come not only because of joy or sorrow or laughter or any one emotion, but often because of the all-encompassing, inexpressible beauty of a moment.

It’s the beauty seen in a movie when all the pieces come together and a character’s dreams are crushed or come true. It’s the beauty of a song sung as we sit in the audience and watch a holy moment unfold. It’s the final sentence of the novel when we wish for just one more chapter with the friends we have made in the pages read. It’s a song coming from our car stereo as we drive down a lonely road. It’s a long forgotten photograph that falls from the pages of a book. It’s the sun rising over the Atlantic as children dance in the sand. It’s the celebration of a life well lived and of resurrection hope at the side of a loved one we wish was not gone. It’s a glimpse past the veil that separates us from eternity that catches sight of the promise to come. It’s the beauty of sorrow and pain and joy and happiness and everything else rolled into one, and tears seem to be the one thing that can explain the cry of our souls.

Sometimes tears alone express all that is felt when God’s children behold the beauty of the gospel – the sorrow of the cross and the triumph of the resurrection and the mystery of faith. There are those times when all of the strands of light found in the work of Christ gather into a blinding brightness, and we become overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. We stand in the light of the sun or the moon and wonder at the breathtaking love of the Creator. We sing of the love of God, rich and pure, or of heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissing this guilty world in love, and we see the brilliance of God’s wonderful salvation. It’s the potent mixture of, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” and “He is not here, for he has risen!” It’s the beauty of Christmas Eve candlelight and Good Friday darkness and Easter sunrises. It’s all there, swirling around with that great cloud of witnesses, when we partake of the bread and the cup in the midst of brothers and sisters who hold the gospel dear, and the beauty of it all spills over in tears. Not just because of joy or sadness or any one thing, but because there is an unspeakable beauty to life and death and to the life and death of Jesus – a beauty that brings tears.