There are times where all we need is a little encouragement from God. It is my experience that God gives such encouragement. God gives us signs, sometimes. It is for us to recognize them, come to grips with them and interpret them. This episode is a story about just that.
Cimarron, NM – Summer 1998
It was in the Summer of 1998 that I arrived at Philmont High Adventure Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, overlooking Cimarron, New Mexico, to be one of two Protestant Chaplains for the Boy Scouts of America. I donned my Boy Scout Uniform with gold epaulets – a sign of my connection to the National office – and got to work. They lent me a 4-wheel drive Chevy Suburban that seated 9 legally, a map of the 215,000-acre ranch and showed me around Base Camp, elevation 6500 feet. Base camp included the Protestant outdoor amphitheater for services (to be held daily), the other worship centers, living quarters for Base Camp staff, the canteen, supply and scout clothing store and the ice cream parlor. The Philmont Training Center and Crafts center were across a state road that was the way into the ranch.
New Mexico is not known as the Land of Enchantment without reason. At first brush, it feels as if the wind were rubbing the hair on your body in both directions at once. The land has a blessing upon it that is palpable. The land also has been soaked by the blood of injustice. It has left an underlying sense of corruption of the virtue of the land.
I could feel the land still belongs to old gods, though the people belong to the new one. There is an undercurrent of the strain between the God of the people and the gods of the land that goes unremarked. Those issues withstanding, to have some time to live in these sanctified mountains for three months would be extraordinary.
My schedule was shared with a colleague and cabin-mate from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Between the two of us we held daily evening services for scouts and their advisors, both incoming and outgoing. For the summer, some 25,000 scouts from around the world would arrive, hike, experience scouting at its finest, then depart. There were camps they would hike to, stay the night, experience the camp, and hike to the next camp. They did this for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one-day stays. The camps included fly fishing, black powder rifle shooting, rock climbing, Indian Writings, Mining, Horse-back riding, and burro packing just to mention a few.
As a Chaplain, besides base-camp worship services, I visited camps to attend to the camp crews, drove out to relay messages, usually of a disastrous nature, haul camp personnel, if I was already going that way, to or from a camp and basically oversaw to the spiritual needs of everyone there. On a few occasions I was called in to mediate when conflicts arose or to help carry someone out who had fallen ill or to an accident.
I began my summer with reservations about the path to ordination I was taking. I couldn’t wrap my head around the contrast between the way I lived up to now and the life I was choosing. It wasn’t really making sense, so I was still in negotiations with God about whether this “calling” was true, and if true, if I had the character to carry it off. So I had asked for some sign that God really wanted me to do this.
It was in this unfamiliar enchanted place where the old gods were imbedded in the land that the first sign came. A preteen scout sought me out after service. We sat beside each other on a bench and he told me his story. It was difficult for him to hold back his tears. His father had a life ending illness and did not believe in God. The rest of the boy’s family went to a church regularly where the sanctimonious preacher made it clear that those who did not believe in God were going to Hell.
The boy, not able to sort out the real depth of his fears being the loss of his father and the changes that would bring to him and his family, instead spoke of his distress that his father wouldn’t go to Heaven. I was revolted by the preacher’s lack of understanding about his congregation, which included this anxious boy.
“Why,” I thought to God, “are some preachers so self-absorbed and thoughtless as to deliver such sordid theology upon their poor congregants! Instead of new wine for those thirsty for God’s New Testament grace, they serve bitter hemlock, the taste of the Old Testament’s pitiless justice!”
So I told this boy, that only God makes those decisions, that the boy was living proof that his father was a good man, and God might just let him in. There are lots of ways of believing in God, I told him, and many of them never include people claiming they believe in God, particularly the God of such preachers as that one. Even though his father would die, the boy could still reach out to him through their soul connection. And when he would do this, he would be assured of his father’s place with God. I wished I could have hugged him, but I could not.
The second sign came one afternoon while I was having a discussion with a young man who was head counselor for the Indian Writings campsite. We had hiked out onto a plain where elk ran. As we came upon the herd of elk, he realized he had lost his keys. This interrupted an intense conversation about his faith. I looked around. We were in a vast grassy plain. Finding his keys would be impossible. I said a prayer that I could find them so we could get back to our important discussion. While he searched, I searched. I footed a hundred feet or so, retracing our probable path, saw a silvery reflection thru the knee-deep grass, bent over and picked up his keys. We surveyed the elk and returned to our discussion.
The third sign took a little more time to play out. One day I was heading out to visit another camp, loaded with staff headed to the outback from base camp down another dirt road (all the camp’s roads were dirt and rock when they weren’t mud and squish). Coming around a bend, my vehicle startled one of the lead wranglers of a horse ride of campers. I wasn’t going fast so I stopped. Still, the wrangler wasn’t expecting us and lashed out in her waning panic. She voiced her objections and claimed I was driving too fast. Later she complained to the commandant’s office.
I was called in and advised of the complaint. Later, I thought about her reaction and its unreasonableness. So I thought more about it. Eventually after consulting with the four other chaplains (one Catholic, one Latter Day Saints, one Jewish and my Protestant colleague), it was evident that none of us had been out to any of the three horse riding camps. The way I figured it, the complaint was really against the chaplain corps. That was when I decided to visit all the horseback riding camps.
Some background might help set up the story. Chaplain’s vehicles had a big circular decal on the rear side windows that said, “Chaplain.” The staff was cognizant of the usual reasons a Chaplain would show up. None of them were welcome. When I pulled up my “Chaplain Mobile” in front of the Ponil Camp bunk house I was met by packed in faces of the wranglers staring out at me from behind the cabin’s windows.
Ponil camp offers horseback riding, roping and burro packing among a few other skills and badges.
I got out of the vehicle and waited for the head wrangler to come on out. He did. I said, “I’m not here to deliver any sad messages.” Then I went on to let him know that what I did want was to bunk with them and work with them for the next few days.
He looked me in the eyes for a few moments, as if to see if he could determine my hidden agenda. Then he said, “I’ll have to discuss it with the guys.” He went in to do just that and the faces disappeared into the room. After a while he came back out and gave me the rule they had decided on if I were to stay. “No talking about religion or trying to convert anybody.” I said, “Okay.”
We got to it. He introduced me to the other wranglers there, showed me my bunk, then took me to the main cabin where I met the Camp Counselor. The main cabin housed the camp counselor and held the canteen for the staff and supply store. That’s where I registered my stay.
The next morning we were up with the dawn. I went out with one of the wranglers and helped feed the horses in the barn across the road. Then we came back for breakfast. After that a few of us went over to let the horses into the corrals and mucked out the stables. Then we set about saddling the horses and prepping them for a few scout troops to climb on for a ride with a couple wranglers, one leading one following. But first would be a horseback riding lesson.
After they headed out, we did some more chores and had lunch. Then we got some horses ready for the next ride. After that it was bring the horses in, take off their gear, brush them down and clean the gear and set it up for the next day. Then it was time for dinner, campfire then bed. Next day we did it again.
After a few days, one of the wranglers asked if I had a cold or something. He must have noticed my sniffles and the red nose. I told him no, I was allergic to horses. But I was taking my allergy medication. So, no worries. He nodded then went off to continue his chores, head down shaking it as if to comment, “fool man.”
I stayed on a few more days and left. A few days later I got a message to return to the Ponil camp and see the head wrangler. When I got there, he told me two of the guys wanted to be baptized. One of them was the guy who had asked me if I had a cold.
Three signs were given me. This is how I read them. The first one told me that I was meant to rectify the harm done in Jesus’s name by other “church people’s” poor application of Bible stories. The second one told me that God would help me through diversions I would encounter and keep me on task. The third told me that my presence alone could represent Christ and I would draw people to him.
While I still had a hard time harmonizing me with serving God as a pastor, I turned the problem over to God. If I trusted in God it would be God’s problem, not mine. If God could use a miscreant like me as a spiritual leader then I would be a spiritual leader. Or I could just remain without true purpose in life like I was doing then. In time, I understood my new purpose, learned to trust God without signs and followed where inspiration led me. To this day, God never let me down. And, only time will tell if I have let God down or not.
Thank you for listening in today. May God continue to bless you. Stay safe.