The Making of Tents and Beds

The Making of Tents and Beds

Each night for the past three nights I have had to make my bed before climbing into it. And by “make my bed” I mean gather sheet and blankets from the floor to re-position them on and re-tuck them under the mattress. This is due to the fact that my children have deemed my wife and I’s bedroom as the ideal location to pitch a tent. And it is – the ground is soft and level, free from rocks. It has some higher shelter already provided. It’s near a source of water, restroom facilities, and even a shower. And our sheets seem to be just the kind of lightweight material needed to provide temporary lodging.

However, while I respect their creativity and resourcefulness, I told my wife last night that I was going to rip all the covers off their beds each day so that they have to make their beds each night before they go to sleep. She wisely said that would just mean more beds for me to make each night. And even if I were to set that plan into motion, it would require removing the dream tents that three of them have on top of their beds. And that’s to say nothing of the forts that currently fill the basement. All three levels of our house bear evidence that my children seem to be overcome by the need for protection upon protection. Shelters within a shelter. Walls within walls. Maybe they know something I don’t.

I guess these are good life skills to have. If trapped in the wild with nothing but couch cushions and sheets, they will be able to construct low clearance shelters and roofless fortresses with keen and well-honed dexterity, provided there is no crosswind, inclement weather, or sloping terrain. So, in the interest of their future preservation, I will let my room serve as their campground. But maybe they can add “leave no trace” and “making the bed” to their set of survival skills.

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Field of Weeds

Field of Weeds

There’s a pristine beauty seen in the uniform green of a major league outfield, each of the innumerable blades of grass crisscrossed with top of the line mowers and mathematical precision. We all rightly rise in the middle of the 5th inning to cheer on the grounds crew who valiantly keep that turf green from April to October.

Yet there is also beauty in the mottled green of the outfields of many city parks, the yards of most home owners, and the vacant lots that no one will claim. There the unintended clover and crabgrass meld together, weaving their way through the intentional bluegrass and tall fescue. Wild violets fill the spring landscape with deep purples, later followed by the white, feathery flowers of the clover. Though none of these colors stand out so bold as the brilliant tone of much-maligned dandelions. We may curse their company, but they convey an unashamed nobility in their stately shape as they hold their heads high above the turf, the self-proclaimed, mustard maned king of the weeds. They endure constant plucking, finding the secret to survival in making the spreading of their seeds an unspoken summer necessity for children, who hold them by their rubbery stems, blowing with all their might, and then use their thumbnails to mindlessly milk the now bald stalk.

Those cottony seeds settle around broadleaf plantains – multi-leafed lily pads with an affinity for congregating along the borders of yards, their bright green spikes jealous of the greater heights seen in their buckhorn brothers, whose brown heads sway on thin but sturdy trunks. The sight of each individual species is punctuated by the pungent smell of wild onions and garlic mustard, and even the occasional sight of wild strawberries, hidden in the growth of countless other “weeds” who vie for real estate in this quilt without seams, a work of art sewn in clay and cultivated by the original Gardener.

It’s worth a walk in those fields. There you can freely pull crabgrass, squeeze the broad, spiny blade between your palms, and attempt to play it like a trumpet. You can pick a bouquet of flowers no shop is able to order. You can twist, bend, and shoot the heads off the buckhorn plantains. These yards usually have no fences, and rarely will someone tell you to keep off. But don’t correlate their open access with their value – some of the most beautiful and rich places in the world are open to all.

Noble Joseph

Noble Joseph

If we followed the lead of the text of Scripture, the men playing Joseph in our various Christmas programs would have no speaking parts. There is no song of Joseph, nor do we hear him respond verbally to the multiple angelic visits he receives. He never pleads with the innkeeper. He says nothing to the shepherds or sages. He rightly stands stoically in the background of our nativities, work-worn hands behind his back, a model of the many strong, silent-types we know. We see his face in the subdued and unassuming men who make up our world. In front of Joseph’s bent frame, the Infant lies front and center, where he should always be. But this Christmas in particular it may be profitable to let our second glance turn to noble Joseph.

Chronologically, he enters the narrative after Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and the miraculous conception of Jesus in her virgin womb. When her pregnancy is finally revealed, Joseph determines to divorce her (Matthew 1:18-25). The move seems somewhat heartless, but we’re told this decision flowed from the righteousness that marked his character and from a commitment to shielding Mary from shame. It would be done quietly; he would bear whatever disgrace fell to him due to the absence of a more public display.

His plans were of course altered with the appearance of an angel of the Lord, who assured him that the child truly was a work of the Holy Spirit, just as Mary had attested. We might imagine how her claims had been dismissed by nearly everyone but her cousin, Elizabeth, but God always causes the truth to prevail, and often gives us faithful friends to stand by us. Rising from sleep, Joseph’s righteous and just character continue to shine as he immediately follows God’s command, taking Mary as his wife, but postponing the physical consummation of their marriage, honoring both her and God in his self-control.

Matthew 2 shows us that his protection extended from his young bride to the Son he was called to care for. Herod, drunk with power and paranoid that he might be deposed and exposed for the fraud he was, heard the good news of the wise men as a threat to his reign, and chose to eliminate two-year-olds throughout his land rather than humble himself before the true King. In that dark shadow, Joseph’s light shines brighter still. He again silently stands as a shield to the innocent, traveling wherever his dreams directed, aiding in the preservation of the life of Jesus until God safely brought them all to Nazareth.

In the small slice of his life revealed in Scripture, Joseph wordlessly calls to us all, especially the men of our age, to courageously stand against both the easy path of self-preservation and the Herod’s who are focused solely on self-exaltation. He reminds us to trust that God’s ways, though confusing and counter-cultural, always lead to life and joy and the promotion of truth. His example says, “Protect the innocent, especially those whom society would seek to silence. Be a defender of women, of the unborn, and of children. ‘Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’” (Phil. 2:15)

As we seek to match Joseph’s strides, we also join him in taking a step back to let Jesus fill center stage. The Son in the manger would far exceed his earthly father in all his noble actions. Joseph and every man and woman before and after him have dirt and blood on their hands, which is why Christ entered our world – to walk through the dirt of earth but not be stained by sin and to shed his blood to cleanse our violent hands. He’s come to redeem us, to fill us with the power of the Spirit, and to call us to follow him down the path of true holiness and humility. It was a path Joseph walked well, and a path Jesus walked perfectly. May we as men and women of God follow them in our day, proclaiming righteousness through our words and actions.

In Memory of the Boys

In Memory of the Boys

It was the threat of the removal of Robert E. Lee that brought out the ugliness of white supremacy in Charlottesville. The man who was called on by other men to lead men and boys to fight for the right of men to own men and women and children – his image incited men to emerge from their darkened homes with rebel flags in their hands and unabashed swastikas emblazoned on their arms, pridefully bearing the symbol of a nation that devalued nearly everyone. The present sight of these past symbols of hate makes us wonder, “How long must we deal with the scars and receive fresh wounds from history’s darkest days?” Sadly, a little bit longer, it would seem.

The frustration with the scenes in Charlottesville overflowed in Durham as protesters pulled the bronze statue of a confederate soldier to the ground. His feet remained planted in the marble slab that toppled with him, but his legs buckled under the weight of the fall. Crumpled on the grass, he was kicked by legs of flesh that did nothing to mar the form any further than the plummet from glory had already, all while insults were shouted in his deaf ears.

The Durham monument was erected “in memory of the boys who wore grey.” The boys. They’re always the ones who fight our battles for us. Whatever ideals we hold to, whatever blind spots we refuse to acknowledge, it’s the youth that are called upon to sacrifice themselves in their honor, or to inherit the sinful ruts that our wheels keep falling into. I can’t help but weep for the boys who wore grey. And the boys who wore blue. A generation cut down for a cause they may not have fully understood. I weep too for the boys who marched with rebel flags. And the boys who were singled out because they donned a hoodie one fateful morning. How often the boys are naively forced to carry the flags we put in their hands, and then to die because we didn’t have the courage to admit the evil residing deep within. We all bear responsibility for our actions, yet too frequently we lead those who follow us into the same pits we have already fallen in ourselves.

The filth of our hatred runs deep, and it spills over from generation to generation, polluting the water the boys are asked to drink. We long, deep in the wells of our hearts, for the water to be purified, maybe by time or knowledge, but it nevertheless fills our streets and our faucets, until one day we don’t realize what we’ve been drinking now makes up the influential majority of our being. We assume slavery has been burned to the ground with much of the post-war South, but it rises again and again. We think the dream is becoming a reality, but then we wake up to news of fresh violence based on the color of a man’s skin and blind to the content of his character. We assume that we have overcome our own wickedness, but it shows up in unbidden thoughts and careless words.

We can pull the boys to the ground and watch their knees bend, but no matter how hard we kick, we still have to stare in their faces and realize that what we are so angry at them for has to be beaten from our own hearts first. Bronze statues were built to endure, even when we wish they would disappear. Public or hidden, their history must never be ignored, not so we can point our fingers in judgment, but so we can contemplate how like our ancestors we are. Bronze or flesh and bones, we all have feet of clay.

So we must continue the good fight, for ourselves and for the boys and girls that will fight the battles we incite, and we can truly hope that things will change. Yet for the ones who have chosen to walk with Jesus on the road of love and self-sacrifice, our greatest hope is that we as children of God through faith in Christ will one day be dressed, not in grey or blue or any other color, but in pure robes, our multi-colored faces unveiled and lifted towards the throne of the Lamb who died to ransom sinful, hateful, evil people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Every knee will bend before him on that last day, and every tongue will confess that we are sinners all, and that the only one who can declare supremacy is the one who humbled himself and died to purchase his bride, made beautiful by the love and grace she has been showered with.

Filled With Memories

Filled With Memories

After six years and the addition of three more children, our family of eight has outgrown our current home. We’re not languishing in a scorching desert of misery, but another bathroom and some additional storage space feels like an oasis, and a bit of additional square footage could be a cup of cold water to some of the friction-induced battles that seem to be set ablaze each day. We are looking forward to our new house, but, for all its shortcomings, we will miss our present home.

They say that you fill the space you live in, and we have certainly done that. Every cupboard is utilized and closets that once were ideal spots during a game of hide-and-seek now offer no crevices to crouch in. The main storage closet we have reflects my Tetris skills, though that means that some boxes are only accessible after the majority of the others are rearranged or removed. And let’s not talk about the tubs of clothes that are consistently rotated from season to season as children move from one size to the next.

But it will all be gone in about a month, whether retired to the trash bin, recycled at the local thrift store, or rumbling down the road to our new house. I’ve already taken the pictures off the walls, a symbolic act of relinquishing our hold on this space we inhabit. There’s still much that needs packed in cardboard, but in my mind’s eye I can see our empty home, the walls relaxing a bit after having been continually stretched through the years.

While a home can become too small to hold people and possessions, it would seem that it never reaches a capacity for retaining the memories of those who live there. How many bedtime routines and Saturday morning breakfasts have we shared with those walls? The rooms have stood as witnesses to births and birthdays, to joys and sorrows, to laughter and anger and every human emotion. After time away, this was the place we returned to as home. We have slept in peace under its roof and found it a place of respite and refuge through storms and trials and the general fatigue of life. This brick and mortar have marked us, and we have left our mark on every inch this property, inside and out.

But soon someone else will move into our home, and it will soak up and retain their memories just as it did the people before us and so on to the family that moved in when it was days old. And as they move in, we will enter a home filled with 16 years of memories from the previous owners, along with countless others, all the way back to the man who recalls digging the basement that my children will fill with games of make-believe. And none of these structures languish under the weight of all the reminiscences; they hold them all effortlessly.

We’ll walk out of our current home for a last time on a not too distant day. The place that was ours will suddenly be a place we would be trespassing on if we walked in the backyard. And yet we will still lovingly haunt the halls and the rooms. Our memories will remain, secrets between us and the carpet and drywall and doors. Will the house shed any tears as we leave? Certainly not. But we will certainly shed tears for it. May it keep our memories for us, because we will never forget it.

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.