It is the pungent aroma of elk that catches me first, a musk unlike any other in the wild. And it is intoxicating to a bowhunter. The prehistoric smell is a sure sign of close proximity to these giant ghosts of the forest.
As least it should be.
But at this moment, I’m not confident about much of anything in this land. It has been more than a year since I’ve been overnight in wilderness (painful confession), and my mind, heart, and body are rusty, stumbling to find their way. Thankfully, some file deep in the archives of my soul kicks in, and I am able to enter into the thrill of chasing wild for Colorado’s opening of archery season.
I am fully immersed in the rare experience of days without a single spoken word. No human interactions. No fences. No technology (with the exception of an emergency location device should all go sideways). No luxuries, unless you count the toothbrush (minus the handle I sawed off to conserve weight) or the micro flask of Fireball (a longstanding element of backcountry liturgy that joy alone insists upon). For three days, I immerse myself in a choice parcel of Colorado wilderness that stretches over more than 100,000 acres: cascading alpine meadows; rugged rock escarpments; ancient, towering aspen stands; and scores of wild animals that rarely encounter the presence of humans. In the brilliant words of Dan Flores, it is a sensual feast of the minimal.
I confess I find myself on edge as I fumble mentally to select a reliable camp site. I am clumsy with my tent’s guide wires as I work to brace for a potential storm like the one that destroyed my first backcountry tent many years ago. The awareness of three fresh piles of bear scat within a stone’s throw of this spot keeps me more punchy than I’d like to admit.
The first night I lie awake for hours as the light of a full moon holds time in a perpetual twilight. I must finally doze off, because I’m awakened in the dead of night by a magnificent bull elk sounding off with bugles somewhere close enough for me to feel his guttural chuckle shake the earth. Making his bravado known in every fold of the landscape, he calls out to potential mates and challengers alike.
In the predawn hours of opening day, my steps are heavier, noisier, and more awkward than in years past. I feel untested; I have grown softer than I realized from living in a more manicured world than my soul is meant to live in. As I begin to formulate my strategy, it is clear that once again, the advantage goes to the elk and not to me with bow and arrow.
Sweat builds as I work my way across a rugged rock face, hoping to gain the ridge before break of day. As I exert my body, I can feel my soul steadily detox from a plugged-in and instant world. I laugh out loud at the contrast between my life and the simple, rhythmic life cycle of bull elk. When I eventually gain the ridge, I take in the nearly endless expanse of wilderness below and the September thunderheads amassing above.
And I am reminded of this simple reality:
I am utterly dependent.
Through the unknown expanse of this place, the starkness of my dependency leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable. I consider my dependence on the water I filtered from the creek, my dependence on a flimsy one-man tent at risk of deadfall and underated for late-summer hail storms, my dependence on my minimal food rations, on weather, on survival gear, and on meticulously packed first aid materials.
But it’s more: I am dependent on God. And it is this revelation that causes part of me to recoil.
A wise mentor in the ways of the ancient path often says to me, “Context is everything.”
I think of the past several weeks and how I experienced the truth of this:
- It was the context of a broken air compressor belt on my truck that created the necessary initiation I needed into deeper agency and fierce mastery in my domain.
- It was the context of a date with my daughter this week that taught me that, at her age of 11, it’s still more fruitful to be playful and curious about her world than to try to dive deep into the Scriptures.
- It was choosing the context with my kids of chasing wild in Wyoming that allowed them to step out of their insulated world and experience dependency on food, water, shelter, and God, in the moment-by-moment but also in unexpected challenges like getting stuck in the mud 21 miles from civilization.
And it is in this context of wilderness that I wake up to the truth of my ultimate situation: I am utterly dependence on a Source beyond myself.
Confession: I live the majority of my days within the comfort and convenience of modern life, and dangerously within the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency. And in this context of wilderness, I feel like I am back in confession in the truest sense of the word: each step into this expansive unknown exposes me and requires me to admit to the truth of utter dependency.
I, like many modern men, have been steadily distanced from many important things that were intended to form and forge my masculine soul. Yet as I have watched the wise men who have gone before me choose, I am reminded that I too can create context—trading the insulation of my daily life for experiences of the dependent life that comes only through chosen vulnerability.
Over these days, as I begin to consent, I notice the telltale signs of life returning the confidence in competency. My external world slows to a soul’s pace, and in time, my internal world follows suit. Conversation with God—listening, asking, becoming curious—begins to flow in like a much anticipated tide. The familiar pattern of alignment slowly takes place. I find myself thinking of the people I love and wondering what stories I would share if given the opportunity to honor them. I write the stories in my soul of men I know and admire who are going before me choosing the vulnerable path of initiation. With each passing hour, curiosity about God and his Kingdom takes over my thoughts and imagination. And for moments, here on this uncivilized landscape, it is well in my soul.
Whatever else we need as men, we must sacrificially choose and fight to place ourselves in an environment designed to mature our utter dependency. There is a particular grace (God acting) that flows only in a context of vulnerability. I spend much of my time observing older men, and I see the convergence of increasing time, money, experience, and knowledge that affords many of them to experience ever-increasing self-sufficiency. When exposure and dependency become unpracticed, something goes to sleep inside the soul of a man. I feel this at stake in my own story. Experiences of vulnerability, exposure, and dependency are not only to be found in wilderness. Vulnerability can be found in risking intentional descent into the unknown terrain of our kids’ hearts. Vulnerability can be found in admitting we know little about our vehicles (and other specific dimensions of our unpruned kingdoms), suffering the exposure and experiencing the reward of taking a step to expand our mastery. Exposure can be found in risking to lay off, for a time, the alcohol or other substances we use to manage how we feel in our bodies in order to experience the vulnerability, press through the anguish of powerlessness, and experience once again the restorative power of our utter dependence on God.
It’s the second day. Mid-morning on a clock, perhaps, but I’m spent from having put in a full day’s energy chasing elk. I make my way to camp, lower my bear bag that’s suspended out of reach of other hungry hunters in the area, and fire up the camp stove. Ravenously, I put down calories and settle into a morning coffee. I pause, breathe in the smells, the air, the ancient trees, dead and alive.
And then I hear them. First one, then multiples. It is clear as day: these are elk chirps and meows, just a stone’s throw away. I thought I was done for the day, but my Father has other plans.
I remember dependency…I return to my first love.
I dump my coffee and drop everything save bow, arrows, and range finder, plunging into the dense, dark timber north of the meadow in which I’m camped. The Author of my story is a wild one, and I’m eager to participate in this next chapter.
But it is more than chasing wild. It’s bigger than hunting for an animal and the hope of putting meat in the freezer. It is a hunt to know union. To bank on the reliability of my Father. To both practice and learn in the deep recesses of my masculine soul a strength that only flows from dependency on the One from whom all strength is resurrected. God, you have my yes. Let’s go…
Friends, context is everything.
The goal is dependency and the fruit is union. What will you do today to choose to engage your courage and your strength—sacrificially—in order to access the depth of the Kingdom of God known to the masculine soul through utter dependency?
Aldo Leopold reflected in his later years, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
I am among those who cannot.
And there are also some who can settle for a life without dependency, and some who cannot.
I am among those who cannot.
Perhaps the deepest cry of the heart of God comes out in Jesus’ prayer: “Father, I pray that they might be one with you as I am one with you.” Oh, my friends, let us choose to respond to the invitation to go deeper into this oneness.
What context can you pursue to place your masculine soul in intentional exposure and dependence, in order to experience the reward of strength through the One who is inviting us into more?
For the Kingdom,
God, you promise in your word that I honor you when I call for help.
Oh, God, may my yes be yes.
Oh, God, may my no be no.
I give my heart to you and you alone.
I call for help in my trouble and choose to trust that it’s in crying out for help that I honor you, God.
It is through this ask, through turning to you in my deepest and darkest need, that I honor you.
I need you.
More of me penetrated, intoxicated, consumed by your love.
I choose to be completely dependent upon you.
Be a river of life streaming out of me.
Flow into me so that you may flow through me.
You are water.
You are life.
I choose strength through dependency.
I give you my need.
I honor you.
(A prayer applied from Psalm 50, MSG)