I’m lucky, in that every morning that I get to swing my leg over a horse, for a brief instant, I connect with the likes of men who lived 150 years ago. This world is made up of all different kinds of professions and people, but none have remained as unchanged as the role of a cowboy. A friend of mine, Jason Hildebrandt, works for the State of Kansas in the IT department. He doesn’t fire up an Apple IIe to work with. Lawyers aren’t really debating and interpreting laws from 1870. Today, doctors aren’t using whiskey to cure a cold or cutting off a stuttering child’s tongue. Unlike these other professions, the cowboy is relatively unchanged in his work, his gear, and his life. I have recently read a couple older history books on cowboy life (The Story of the Cowboy by E. Hough ; The Cowboy by Philip Rollins ; and Smokey the Cowhorse by Will James ) and been fascinated by the historical connection between what I do, what they wrote about and did, and what cowboys 100’s of years ago lived through. The horse, though specifically breed for types of work now, remains the same animal that drove herds across the plains. The saddle cinched around its mid-section, still consists of leather and wood. In a world taken over by synthetics, lighter weight, and higher strength engineered materials; the working cowboy still uses leather attached to a wooden tree. The wardrobe consists of a cowboy hat, thanks to John Stetson in 1865, jeans, and boots (both holdovers from the late 1800’s).
It got me to thinking, why hasn’t it changed? We ride horses instead of atv’s, use ropes instead of chutes, and leather gear because it’s the simplest and best way to get the job done. If necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity, in the cowboy world hasn’t arisen in the last 150 years because the goal was always the same: raise the best beef and the best horses. This isn’t about modern ranching vs. new technology, but simply an opportunity to appreciate the traditions and ways passed down to us. Methods and traditions that have been done the same way for 150 years because it was the simplest and most effective way then, and it’s the simplest and most effective way now. Churches often miss this point, then again most churches aren’t made up of cowboys. Cowboys embrace history every time they saddle up, some churches and some people attempt to forget history at every opportunity.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are camped just outside of the Promised Land on the plains of Moab. Over a thirty-day period Moses makes three speeches, intending to prepare the people of Israel to enter the land of Canaan. Moses favorite word in these speeches is the word “remember” [heb. zakar]. Fifteen times in his speeches, Moses pleads with the Israelites to “remember.” It’s fitting that the title of the book, “Deuteronomy”, is Greek meaning “second law” because Moses is reminding people again of what’s expected of them. Moses wants Israel to remember where they came from, to remember how they acted, remember what God did, and remember what happened to them. God was very clear through Moses that when we forget, bad things happen and that to isolate ourselves from history comes with it a steep price.
I worked at a church that was convinced that history began only years prior when they had replanted a church in the inner-city with all of them coming downtown from a church up north. In doing so, they revitalized the church and the neighborhood. But when recounting the history of the church, the 108 years of history before the “new” church was completely forgotten. A history that contained intellectual giants for ministers, congregations so large the church busted at the seams, ultimate generosity and giving shown in the stewardship of the congregation, and a sending attitude from amongst the people that sent parishioners all over the world spreading the gospel. In neglecting the history, the congregation missed out on people from the congregation dying in foreign countries for their faith, a church split due to bad theology, and a congregation who changed thousands of lives in the city. The church has done nothing wrong in this instance other than taking a myopic view of history. Moses keeps reminding the people that 40 years prior they were slaves (5.15; 7.18; 15.15; 16.12) and that God had done incredible things to deliver them. Communities and churches need to be reminded of what God has done in the past.
I work with students every day that are convinced that faith is an individual action. They are convinced that the Church isn’t for them, that Jesus is the only thing they need. “It’s a religion, not a relationship” is their mantra. What they fail to embrace a “religion” they are missing out on the doctrines and beliefs set forth throughout centuries of debate, writings, and councils. They are then free to create whatever and make Jesus whatever they want. To turn your back on 2000 years of doctrine and wisdom, i.e. religion, is to isolate your walk, something that Moses would have a problem with. Moses, in his song at the end of the book reminds the people “to remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. As your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.” (Deut. 32.7)
I try to work alongside God every day. I say that because He has worked in the past. Throughout the Bible, God works alongside man, throughout history, to bring about the redemption of the world. Christians have a linear view of time. It had a beginning (Genesis 1.1), we had a beginning, we will have a transition (i.e. death) and then eternity. There is no going back, no do-overs, no repeats. From Genesis 1, God wants to involve us. Tend the garden (Gen 2.15); build a boat (Gen 6.14); write this down (Ex. 17.14); say this (Ex. 19.3), raise up this person (1 Kings 19.15-18) and so many other tasks were given to man by God. It tells me a couple things about Him: (1) He is a God who works in space, time, and in and through humanity. (2) He is a God who entrusts us with great responsibility to carry out his wishes. I cant even get the right stuff from the store for my wife, but God trusts me to carry the message of salvation to others. (3) He is a God who has spoken, through His word, what I need to do! We do not serve a silent God, but a God who reveals His will through His word. One of my favorite “remembers” in Deuteronomy is 8.2-4, when the simple miracle of keeping shoes on their feet and clothes on their back for the 40 years of wandering is God at work in the lives of His people daily.
Every morning I saddle a horse and lope off, is a day when I get to remember and connect with countless men who have started mornings the same way. It’s usually a passing thought, but the way things are done in the cowboy world is with simplicity and efficiency as tested by time. Old has much to say to new. God is a God who has worked in history, as documented by His book, and wants us to view history like cowboys do. To see it, cherish it, and learn from it…that’s the cowboy way!