“Do you hunt?”
This was the simple yet unexpected question he asked of me as he stood there in my office. I was the new pastor at his church in northern Minnesota and had only been there for a matter of months. People who came to see the pastor usually wanted to talk about some personal issue, ask for prayers due to an illness in the family or seek advice due to problems with a loved one. Before I could answer, he continued, “The pastor before you wasn’t a hunter. How about you? Do you hunt?”
Truth be told, I had never hunted.
As a boy, I watched from Tennessee hilltops as my father, uncles and grandfather hunted rabbits with shotguns and dogs down below. My brothers, cousins and I were told to stay put, not get lost and behave ourselves. We did alright with staying put and never got lost, but we did not always behave. Crude jokes, mumbley-peg and throwing rocks…sometimes at each other…kept us boys from getting bored as we waited for the men to return. We could hear the dogs…all beagles…as they filled the valley belong with their long, drawn out, vocal music. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned this half bark, half howl was called baying. Occasionally we would hear the blast of a shotgun. The baying would subside, but only for a few moments. Soon enough my grandfather’s beagles would be at it again as they pursued another rabbit.
When the sun went down and darkness fell, we could hear the baying getting louder. The hunt was over and the men were heading back. We could see their flashlights as they climbed the hill toward us. “How many did you get? How many?” we asked as a chorus of cousins. And then they would hold their rabbits in front of us…always up-side-down by the hind legs. We would count them one by one. If we were lucky, we’d be allowed to hold a rabbit or two by ourselves while the men emptied their guns, put them back into the cases, loaded the dogs into my grandfather’s truck and prepared for the ride back to his house.
To this day, I can still see my father on top of a hill with his shotgun…grinning from ear to ear. He was in his thirties back then…a good twenty years younger than I am now. He was young, so very young, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Children rarely do until they become parents and grandparents themselves. It is only when we look back that we realize the youth of our mothers and fathers as they raised us. Though he spent twenty-eight years in the Army and I saw him in uniform more often than not, the image of my father standing before me after the hunt is the most vivid. I was well aware that he had flown helicopters on two separate tours of duty during the war in Vietnam. Over and over I had looked at the old black and white photos of him in fatigues with his flight helmet…a sinewy young officer far from the ones he loved. I knew that he was a soldier, indeed a warrior, having received the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Yet for some reason, seeing my dad…the hunter…back home with his father and brother is my strongest and most treasured memory.
Watching the sunset in the hills of eastern Tennessee…waiting eagerly to see my father hiking back toward me…listening to the baying of the beagles as they got closer…these are the images I have tucked away deep inside me. Images so vivid that I can sense the cool evening air, smell the tobacco on my grandfather and feel the rabbit’s fur as I held its stiffening body. And in my mind’s eye, I can see my father standing before me, so young and strong.
I’m not sure why my brothers and I never hunted with my dad in later years when we were growing up. We were told that we were too young during those rabbit hunts so long ago. Life got busy, I suppose. We didn’t travel back to Tennessee as often. My father’s work load only increased as he was promoted and assigned to the Pentagon. My brothers and I certainly enjoyed our years of playing basketball, baseball and football on all the different Army posts where we lived…with our father often coaching our teams. But we never hunted together. Like some many families, hunting became something they did “in the old days”…a relic of the past. Fathers and sons nowadays are more likely to golf together than head to the woods with a rifle or gun. Chances are greater that they will pull through the drive-up window for a bag of hamburgers instead of carrying the quarters of an elk back to camp.
“So do you hunt?” the man in my office asked again. I was suddenly back in northern Minnesota, even though I had traveled through time to old Tennessee in the few seconds that had elapsed. “I remember watching my father hunt when I was a boy, but I’ve never actually hunted myself,” was my reply bordering on apology and embarrassment.
“So do you want to hunt with us?” he responded. “Yes…yes…that would be…great,” I told him. “Good,” he said. “Get a rifle, some blaze orange…and don’t forget to buy a license.” “What kind of license?” I inquired. “Deer. We’ll be hunting deer.”
The church I served at the time was in the small town of Warroad…not far from the Beltrami Island State Forest, named after the Italian explorer, Giacomo Beltrami. Deer, bear and wolves were known to live in the forest. I had seen deer, but only on the side of the road at night driving back home after visiting someone who lived in the country.
Keith was the name of the man who invited me to hunt. Every fall he hunted white-tailed deer in the forest with the other men in his family. My secretary told me that it was an honor to be invited to join this hunting party. “Folks up here usually don’t let outsiders hunt with them,” she informed me.
As a pastor, I already knew that I was an “outsider.” It usually takes a year or two for people to think of their pastor as one of their own. For some pastors, this never happens. Those pastors and their families are always looked upon as being different…and feel as if they are living in a fish bowl as the locals observe them, but never fully embrace them.
Keith’s invitation was extraordinary in many ways. We didn’t know each other, yet he was willing to reach out to me. I was a pastor…and the pastor before me had served there for over 30 years as a non-hunter. Keith had no way of knowing if I would appreciate, let alone respond favorably, to his kind offer, so he was taking a risk. And it was extraordinary for anyone to be invited to join an established hunting party in that neck of the woods. These men hunted together as members of the same family…as childhood friends who had grown up together…or as buddies who worked together making windows, hockey sticks or snowmobiles in the local factories.
So Keith’s invitation was a moment of grace. Grace, theologically speaking, is God’s love and mercy that we receive through His generosity and compassion through no merit of our own. This rare gift of grace can break in to human relationships and unexpected encounters with others. Keith graced me, so to speak. I had done nothing to earn the right to hunt with him and his family. He certainly did not have to include me. He was under no moral imperative to ask the new pastor to head to the woods with him on a hunt. Yet grace happens…and once you’ve experienced it, you are never the same. Little did I know how my world was about to change…or how all this would change me.
That was nearly twenty-five years ago when I was a hunting neophyte. I’ve since learned a thing or two. Most of those lessons came the hard way, as it is for most of us who spend time in pursuit of wild things. I have hunted with bow, muzzleloader, shotgun and centerfire rifle. I have been blessed to take my share of white-tailed deer, mule deer, wild turkey and elk while in the woods or up in the mountains. I’ve been doubly blessed to have a freezer full of wild game meat each winter and gather with my growing family around the table as we feast on venison. Though my father is now a great-grandfather and has slowed down a bit, I think of him each and every time I head out to hunt. He is with me as I pitch my tent and set up camp. I can feel his presence as I put on my backpack and start my stalk long before the sun rises. I can see him smiling as I field dress my deer or quarter out my elk.
In my hunting journal is a photo of me with my father when I had the privilege of taking him on his first and only hunt for deer when I still lived in Minnesota. It was a hunt with shotgun slugs only as mandated by the Department of Natural Resources. After four days of freezing temperatures and seeing only does, we finally spotted a buck in the middle of a thickly wooded area. He was a warrior, just like my dad, for his face showed the marks of head to head fighting with other bucks during the rut…and one of his antlers was missing. Dad and I decided to raise our guns and fire simultaneously after we quietly closed the distance. On the whispered count of three both our slugs hit the mark and the old buck when down where he stood. In that photo, my father is grinning…just as he did when I was just a boy.
Though my work schedule is always busy as I do my best to serve faithfully as senior pastor of my large congregation, I always apply for the hunts that take place in New Mexico where I now live. If my children and I are lucky enough to be drawn, then we make the time for preparations, training and the few days we get to spend on public lands in pursuit of elk and deer. My grandsons are too young to hunt presently, but I know that with the blink of an eye they will be young men…and I want to be strong enough in order to hunt with them the first time they experience what so many of us have come to treasure. And when we do, I will them about a man named Keith who invited their grandpa to hunt with him when he was only thirty-three years old. I will encourage them to invite a friend or colleague to experience the hunt with them when they come of age and the time is right. I want them to grace another person’s life as I have been graced. As we gather round the fire telling stories and jokes, I will be sure to tell them about the canine melody of beagles singing in the valley, the sound of shotguns ringing out, the feeling of cool Tennessee evening air and the sight of their great-grandfather with a mile wide grin as he climbed back up the mountain.