In our family, I grew up hunting and fishing. Each fall we would make a man-trek into the wilds to pursue deer. I loved the coming of fall. The preparation and plans for the annual hunt was something that occupied my boyhood thoughts from the start of hunting season all the way through the end of the fall.
In my growing up years my dad would say to me and my brother, “Someday I will take you boys on a real hunt.” The “real hunt” meant getting a packer with horses and packing back into some wilderness area for a week and really taking the time needed to do it right.
In the fall of my thirteenth-year dad made good on his promise and took me and my brother, who was eleven at the time, on that real hunt. We left our home in Los Gatos, California for the drive across the San Joaquin Valley and up into the High Sierras. Our drive took us through the historic Gold Rush town of Sonora and up Highway 108 to the trailhead at Kennedy Meadows.
Farther up Highway 108, the summit of Sonora Pass crosses the Sierras at an elevation of 9,624 feet. At some places, the road reaches a steep grade of 26%. The first record of any white man crossing the pass was in 1852. Native American people probably crossed the pass a millennia earlier, but we were the ones who wrote the history books. Eventually, a road was surveyed and completed in 1865. Today, at the top of the pass the road still looks like a wagon trail covered with a single lane of asphalt.
After our arrival dad arranged with a packer at Kennedy Meadows to take the three of us and our gear south along the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and deposit us in an area north of Yosemite’s northern boundary. As a kid, I didn’t know that this was one of my dad’s “last minute” planned outings. To me and my brother, it was a well-planned safari. We arrived at the packer’s station at mid-afternoon with no reservations.
Our pack string consisted of the packer and his horse leading another horse that carried all our supplies. My brother and I were next in line and dad brought up the rear. Dad used to be a real cowboy so he knew all about horses. They scared me. All that muscle and a mind of their own never did sit well with me.
As we left Kennedy Meadows my thirteen-year mind began to wander into those places where young boys live – imagination land. At every turn of the trail and every click of a hoof, I imagined a big buck standing near the trail waiting for me. I also imagined bears and other scary things.
As we climbed in elevation we passed rock outcroppings where the trail narrowed and vistas opened up that were covered with granite boulders, a high elevation species of brush, and a few well-spaced evergreen trees. We were approaching the timberline where the vegetation was thinning out.
After what seemed like a couple of hours we came to a bridge that spanned the creek we had been following and the packhorse, the one carrying all our gear, refused to cross. Then I saw the packer do something I had never seen or imagined. He tied the tail of his horse to the bit in the pack horse’s mouth and the packer’s horse literally dragged the resistant animal across the bridge. I kept waiting for the horse’s tail to snap, but it held and the packhorse was pulled across the bridge. Part of me wondered if this was a repeated routine the pack animal went through each time he had to carry some tenderfoots gear up the steep mountain trail and across the bridge.
Up we went. The rhythm and sway of the horse and trail were becoming a familiar cadence. These horses were different than the rental horses at summer camp that got a half-mile away from the camp corral and then turned around and trotted back no matter what input I gave the reins. These were proven trail animals we were riding. They were so good at what they did that they even took care of kids like me who didn’t know anything about horses.
We came to a drift fence. A drift fence is used to hold cattle on the summer range and keep them from drifting off leased government land. This drift fence had a wire gate that was nothing more than a wooden pole at the end of a four-strand barbwire fence with a wire loop that you unhooked to open.
My dad walked his horse up to the drift fence and stopped alongside the packer and the pack animal he had in tow. The packer got down to undo the drift fence and handed my dad the reins to the packhorse. Dad tied off the reins of the packhorse onto his saddle horn and began to dismount to stretch his legs. He was placing his foot on the ground when the drift fence let out a squeak as the wire and wood rubbed together. At this squeaking noise, the packhorse spooked and pulled away and ran behind my dad’s horse trapping his legs with the reins that were still tied to the saddle horn. Dad was pulled underneath his horse.
What took place now went into that slow-motion zone when you are experiencing a life-threatening event. This is where time slows down and expands so you can view the event in unreal time and have an extended opportunity to discover a course of action to help you survive. I remember when our family got in a car wreck and the whole event went into slow motion until the impact. This was the same feeling.
As dad was pulled under his horse, it began to jump up and down in a stomping action. By now dad was directly under his horse and taking the full impact of the hooves into his upper torso. He was stomped repeatedly in his stomach and chest.
Dad used to be a boxer. Months later he would describe watching the horse hooves coming down like the fists of a boxing opponent trying to punch him in the face. As the horse continued to stomp down, dad rolled his head from side to side to deflect each kick like he was in a fight so that the impact would never be direct and fatal. Years later if you looked real close you could still see the small scars on his cheekbones where the horse hooves cut into his flesh with their glancing blows.
Both horses were now on top of my dad stomping him repeatedly. As the stomping was taking place a huge dust cloud began to rise as did the shouts of the packer to his frenzied animals. It was utter chaos. My horse, and the one my brother rode, were getting nervous and moved under us in strange and unfamiliar ways.
As quickly as this event happened it was over. Down the trail went dad’s horse with the packhorse still attached and bucking. Our camping gear went flying in all directions. The packer yelled something to my brother and me about staying put until he returned with help. We would not see him for another eight hours.
There, in a descending cloud of dust, lay my dad. He was lying in the trail on a bed of sharp rocks that acted like knife attacks to his back in response to the horse’s frontal assault with their sharp hooves. He was motionless. My little brother and I got off our horses and ran to our dad. He let out a long deep moan of air, his mouth fell open like the dead people we had seen in scary movies, and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he was still. One of us, I am not sure if it was my brother Dwain or me, shouted, “I think dad is dead!” That was too much for my little brother. He screamed and ran down the trail yelling for help. It was the loneliest moment in my life. It was also the loneliest place I had ever been. I was miles from the nearest human settlement in the wilderness of the High Sierras kneeling in the trail dust looking down at the body of my dad. My brother was gone. The packer was gone.
For some reason, I stood to my feet and walked away from my dad’s body, and looked up towards a crease in a distant ridgeline. To this day I can still see that ridgeline in my mind. And then I prayed. My prayer was simple, “God if you will bring my dad back to life I promise I will serve you the rest of my life.” That was the simple prayer I prayed and then I went back to my dad.
As I looked down dad’s mouth was still open, his eyes were still rolled back in his head and all the color had drained from his face. He was gray. I reached out and touched his shoulder and yelled, while crying and sobbing, “Dad, wake up!” I did it again and then I heard a groan and he jerked his head up just a bit before the stabbing pain stopped him. Then my dad said, “Are you alright?” I yelled as loud as I could, “Dad!” and then he passed out again, but at least I knew he was alive.
The packer, we later learned, was working his way back to Kennedy Meadows to get help. My brother had run back up the trail to join me. We didn’t know what to do except cover dad with our coats.
For the next eight hours, until the Search and Rescue Team made it to our location, my brother and I were alone with dad wondering what to do. We weren’t EMT’s, we were just kids. Dad was coming in and out of consciousness. The doctors would later say it was a miracle that he survived. Occasionally, throughout the evening, hunters hiking into the backcountry would stop to offer us words of encouragement. No one offered to stay with us.
When the rescue team finally got to us at midnight they had no idea of the extent of dad’s internal injuries. They simply bound up his mid-section, put him on a horse, and had him ride the several hours down the mountain back to a waiting ambulance. The ride down the trail was excruciating. I watched as my dad would pass out and fall forward onto the neck of his horse and then wake up again to sit straight in the saddle. This went on mile after mile. Later we would learn that most of his ribs had been broken. One rib punctured a lung causing it to collapse. Breathing is harder at high altitude even with two good lungs. His spleen and other internal organs were bruised.
Our family has told that story many times. We were thankful that we did not lose dad that day high in those lonely mountains. As the years went on, I grew up, finished my education, met my wife, got married, had kids, and continued to live life. I forgot about any promise I made to God.
At age twenty-nine I had one of those dramatic Damascus Road experiences with God. Like Paul’s experience in the Book of Acts, God came and got a young man whose life was not headed in the direction of God’s destiny for him. Out of that experience with God came the calling I have walked in for the last 30 years. Shortly after God met me, He reminded me of the promise I had made to Him at age thirteen when I asked Him to spare my dad’s life. He was calling due to the promise I had made so He could link that promise with the calling He had placed upon my life.
We all have made promises to God in times of desperation and once the desperation was over we forgot what we promised. We don’t forget for evil reasons – we simply move on from the point of our need and forget. But God doesn’t forget. God knows He is working with imperfect people, people who forget things. He also knows what it was like to live in one of our bodies and have to face our human frailties. God knows the perfect time to call a promise due. In my case, it was sixteen years after the promise was prayed.
David wrote about making promises and vows to God in Psalm 61. This was after his sexual sin with Bathsheba and the sorrows that went along with that sad event. David wrote, 4 “Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! 5 For you have heard my vows, O God. You have given me an inheritance reserved for those who fear your name. 6 Add many years to the life of the king! May his years span the generations!”
God heard the vows David made from the sorrow he felt for having sinned so horribly. God did not let the failures and detours of David’s life stand in the way of fulfilling His destiny for David. David’s vow, and his repentant heart, kept him open to God’s calling being fulfilled in his life. I Chronicles 29: 28 summarizes David’s life with these words, “He died at a ripe old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth, and honor.”
I believe when we make a promise to God that we are saying something to God that He put in our hearts in the first place. All good things start with God. Our promise to God in a desperate moment is what He uses to link us with the good things that are part of the inheritance David spoke of in Psalm 61.
The disciples also made vows to God. As Jesus talked about His coming death each disciple promised to never deny the Lord, but they all did. Peter’s denial was the most dramatic but all of them ran away when things got tough.
Matthew wrote in 26:34-36, “Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” 35 “No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the other disciples vowed the same.”
The vows and promises the disciples made to Jesus would not be fulfilled until after the Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost. Vows and promises we make to God can never be accomplished in human willpower alone, but only by the power of God’s Spirit. The things we promise God are not humanly possible. Each of the disciples would go to their graves having lived a life in line with the vow they made to God. Those vows were fulfilled on the other side of their abandonment of Jesus at His Crucifixion and on the other side of their restoration by Christ Himself. These vows were fulfilled when each disciple yielded to what God had planned for them.
God is faithful to remind us of forgotten promises. Sometimes the fulfillment of a promise lies on the other side of seasons of failure and forgetfulness when our lives resemble little of the promise we made. When He reminds us of these promises He is not reminding us of our failures. He is reminding us of His love.
Most of us are returning prodigals coming home with unfulfilled promises. God is waiting to embrace us, to kill the fatted calf and start the party.
On the trail on that day when my earthly father lay wounded and dying, he tried the best he could to keep the promise he made to his boys for a great hunt. On that same day, my Heavenly Father was sitting on His Throne directing the scribes of heaven to write down a promise from a thirteen-year-old boy who needed help. God would later bring that promise back to the boy’s memory as he became a man. God is like that – He never forgets the promises we make to Him. He delights in helping those promises become our reality.