I first remember the Romance calling to me when I was a boy of six or seven, just past dusk on a summer evening, when the hotter and dustier work of the farm had given way to another song. Something warm and alive and poignantly haunting would call to me from the mysterious borders of the farm that was my world. I would walk toward it, past the corrals where our milk cows rested, down through rows of dark green corn that towered far above my head. The corn, imperious in its height and numbers, presented its own kind of Enchanted Forest. Every leaf that gave way before my outstretched arms offered possible mystery… There in the moonlight I would squat down on my heels near the water's edge, letting my toes sink into the cool sand.
In that place I was in the middle of the singers.
The voices of crickets, katydids, and cicadas would come to me, carried above the sounds of the creek and mingled with the pungent odor of tannins. Tens of thousands of stream-side musicians sang to me the magic stories of the farms and forests.
Twenty years ago this spring I published a book with my dear friend Brent titled The Sacred Romance. Many people still mistake it for a marriage book, I’m sad to say. It is a love story, but far older and much more reliable than matrimony. Rather, it is the story of how God has pursued our hearts ever since we were children. A shocking, massive revelation for many people to hear that God cares about—even yearns for—the life of our hearts. That our hearts even matter to God is one of the greatest, most hopeful turns of faith that can come into our lives.
But I am not going to make that case here; it is made far better in the pages of that book, even better still in the pages of Scripture. I am after something else at the moment.
To realize God has been wooing our hearts ever since we were young, through the very things we love, is an equally startling revelation, life-changing if you’ll let it be. That, too, is an assumption I am making rather than defending, for what I want to get to may matter even more to where we are today. But permit me to catch you up on the story.
The “Romance” began for me during summers on my grandfather's ranch. I grew up in the suburbs of southern California during the 1960s and ‘70s. One vast, sprawling, uninterrupted concrete and asphalt metropolis, about 10 million people at the time. Not many places for a boy to chase pollywogs or wander through cornfields at dusk. My grandfather, however, had a cattle ranch in eastern Oregon, near where the Snake River forms the winding liquid border with Idaho. It is high desert country—hot and dry in the summer, transformed by irrigation into an vast, green agricultural quilt. Potatoes, onions, sugar beets, and mint, along with cattle pastures and the alfalfa fields needed to feed them through the cold winters. As I wrote 20 years ago,
My grandfather, “Pop,” filled an empty place in my soul at a critical moment. He was my hero, a cowboy and a gentleman in a Stetson and boots. Spending summers on his Ranch was a schoolboy’s dream—riding horses, chasing frogs, harassing the big old cows when I was sure no one was looking. I remember riding in his old Ford pickup, Pop with his cowboy hat and leather work gloves, waving at nearly everyone on the road. Folks seem to wave back with a sense of respect. It gave me a settled feeling that someone was in charge, someone strong and loving. Pop loved me as a boy and called me to be a man. He taught me to saddle and ride a horse—not merely for fun, but to take my place on a working ranch. Together we explored the open spaces of the eastern Oregon sagebrush, mending fences, tending sick cattle, fishing Huck Finn-style with willow branches and a piece of string.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate just what a staggering gift and dramatic rescue those summers were. Would that everyone were so lucky. But the Romance can come in many ways, thank God: chasing fireflies, the old library, your favorite books, the first snow, roasting marshmallows, secret forts you built of cardboard boxes. And recovering it—or discovering and then recovering it—can be one of our life’s greatest treasures.
Last month, Stasi and I returned to the tiny town of Nyssa, Oregon, for my grandmother’s funeral. It would be the first time back in nearly 30 years. Pop died when I was 17; my grandmother eventually remarried, sold the ranch, and moved to another town. I was very guarded in going back, because I know that the Romance—now even more precious to me than gold—was flowing through those childhood years like the river flowed through the valley, in a story orchestrated by God. It is not forever located in an actual place. Things change. Towns change. I didn’t even know if the ranch would still be there. “You can never go back,” became a saying because cynical though it may be, far too often it is true. Too many broken hearts have tried to go back and only found there the empty shell. Brent knew this himself; as a very lost young man he returned to his childhood farm, hoping to find answers there:
I stood there that November day looking down onto a small brown stream bordered in lifeless gray hardwoods and monochromatic fallen leaves. A few hundred yards off to my right stood our old farmhouse, now vacant with a large hole in the roof. The barns and sheds and corrals that had given it a reason to exist were gone. Weeds grew in a tangled confusion where the corn had once stood in ordered wildness. The weariness of it all came together in the silence of those absent August songsters from so many years ago. I remember feeling a sharp pain in my chest that I silenced with cold anger.
Only years later did Brent come to understand that the flowing nature of the Romance is situated not forever in a place, but in the living, moving story God has for us.
I believe we are in a process of restoration, at the center of which is a recovery of wholeheartedness.
I believe that sometimes God will invite us back into treasured memories and special places. And if it is by his invitation, we are safe to go there. He takes us back for several reasons—not only for the feast of memories that comes (some of which needing to be healed), but also to reawaken sleeping places in our hearts. Mostly I think he takes us back to show us as adults all the ways he was wooing us in our childhood, even when we didn't know him at the time.
What surprised me was how incredibly rich it was to drive down those country roads again. To smell the onion fields, go into the small M & W Market. A thousand memories came rushing in. And then to pull up on the ranch road bordering my grandfather's place. Yes, it wore the burden of 40 years gone by: the paint was faded and peeling; the pastures were neglected; my favorite cottonwood was gone. But nearly everything else was intact—every barn, shed, and even the old tack room are still there. “I used to feed the horses in that trough,” I whispered to Stasi. “There’s the old workshop. I oiled that shingle roof one summer.” The experience was almost like a waking dream where you get to revisit the best days of your childhood.
So many memories. So much of the Romance to be reclaimed.
Now yes, we do need to be careful with our hearts as we venture back, either in memory or in actual places. The Romance moves and shifts as we grow, move, and shift. The Romance is not in present-day Oregon for me; it is right here in Colorado now, because this is where God and I live together. This summer it is in the sound of crickets and hummingbirds, the smell of petunias, my granddaughters’ first popsicles. When we mistake the Romance for a person or a place, even a season of our life, it can really break our hearts, because people and places and seasons change and pass away, and if we are not careful, tender places of our hearts can pass away with them.
I wrote a new book this year. It speaks of the promise of the restoration of all things (one of the greatest promises of the Romance), which Jesus makes very clear includes actual locations like homes and lands (Matthew 19:28-29).
There was an old wooden bridge on my grandfather’s ranch; it crossed a large irrigation canal the size of a good stream, which flowed constantly with milky water the color of well-creamed coffee. Cottonwoods grew in the rich loamy soil along the canal, and their huge boughs covered it in shade all summer long. Even in the dog days of August it was always cool there, and the waters made the quietest lovely sounds as they passed under the bridge. It was a magical place for a boy. Coming in from the fields we would race the last hundred yards, galloping our horses over the bridge which boomed and echoed under our hooves with a marvelous deep sound like thunder, or cannon fire from the deck of a great ship. Swallows would shoot out from under either side, spinning away up and down the canal. As far as I was concerned, in my seven year old heart, that bridge had always been there, and always would be. Wallace Stevens shared a similar experience from his boyhood,
Unless everything in a man's memory of childhood is misleading, there is a time somewhere between the ages of five and twelve that corresponds to the phase ethologists have isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life…I still sometimes dream, occasionally in the most intense and brilliant shades of green, of a jungly dead bend of the Whitemud River below Martin's Dam. Each time I am haunted, on awakening, by a sense of meanings just withheld, and by a profound nostalgic melancholy. Yet why should this dead loop of river, known only for a few years, be so charged with potency in my unconscious? Why should there be around it so many other images that constantly recurring dreams or in the phrases I bring up off the typewriter onto the page? They live in me like underground water; every well I put down taps them. (Marking the Sparrow’s Fall)
I now understand, some 50 years later, that the bridge under the cottonwoods was filled with “a sense of meanings” and “charged with potency” because the Promise was coming to me through that place. And oh, how I would love to see it again, take my own grandchildren there; charge our horses over and make cannon fire, then sit quietly and dangle our bare feet over the edge, watching the swallows come and go.
Yes—I had hoped to visit that bridge again last month. But the ranch belongs to someone else now, and the bridge is tucked way back on private property. I did not feel comfortable trespassing. There were so many gifts in my visit, so many wonderful memories recovered. I felt God saying that my visit to the bridge waits for the Restoration. I drove away, probably for the last time in this life, with a settled heart. I’ll see it soon enough.
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