My American Dream Where The Buffalo Roam
I tell people from time to time what my dreams for the future are. I want to buy some land out in the country here in Montana to build a house and start a ranch. But I don’t just want to start any old ranch. I want a bison ranch. And I want a log cabin with a covered porch and rocking chairs. I want a view of a fresh stream or creek. And I want to sit out on that porch in one of those rocking chairs and smoke my pipe and write and look up from what I’m writing from time to time to study those bison – my bison.
That’s on my bucket list, as they say. That’s what I want.
Or more to the point, that’s what we want. What started out as my dream years and years ago has grown. Now my wife and sons want it too. My dream became our dream. And that’s why my Lauren picked out the bison painting at the Hobby Lobby store in Billings: to keep our dream alive and well amid uncertainty.
Buying The Bison Painting
The 271-mile drive to Billings from our home in Sidney, Montana had taken its typical four-and-a-half hours. We were all a bit saddle-sore from sitting in the van all morning. It was October and our kids had dentist appointments. My insurance would expire before long. I had just been laid off and there was a limited time left to get things taken care of. I wasn’t sure how long it would be until I had another job with benefits.
Yet flush with cash – from severance and cashing out my vacation and 401k and pension – we were optimistic. After four-and-a-half years working as a lease operator in the oil and gas industry of Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota, I felt my resume was strong. What’s more, I knew we had friends and family nearby who were in our corner. Temporary jobs had been offered to me immediately upon people finding out I was going to be laid off. What’s more, I decided to go back to school online. I’d finish up my Bachelor’s degree. My estimates said we could go 6-8 months with minimal income if worst came to worst. I was just sure I’d have another great job lined up well before we had to worry about that.
And so, stretching our legs a bit after the long drive to Billings, we stopped at Hobby Lobby. Once there, perhaps in part as a gesture of our optimism, my wife bought a piece of wall art. It was a charming little print of American bison grazing on a rolling yellow prairie – no doubt someplace in picturesque Montana or North Dakota – on a sunny summer day.
The Rearview Mirror Rather Than The Windshield
I got to looking at the bison painting again this chilly January morning. As I read a book and sipped my coffee, it occurred to me that I’ve avoided looking at it. You see, the bison painting Lauren bought back in October has been mounted on this wall of our sitting room for four months now. And, though it was originally bought as a symbol of our hopes for the future, it’s almost come to mean the opposite to me. As our reserves have dwindled quicker than expected the past four months, looking at the bison painting without pangs of doubt gripping my chest has gotten progressively harder with each passing week.
Were we being hopeful or foolishly naïve? Optimistic or deluded? Was the October purchase of the bison painting reckless considering our January need for frugality? These sorts of questions come to mind easily when you begin imagining the prospect of bankruptcy and losing your home. Even cheap wall art can seem expensive when you consider more practical and immediate things you might have bought with that money.
Hopelessness is Costly, as is Misplaced Hope
You’ve got to have hope, and not just in the good times. Point of fact, it’s especially when times are rough that hope is needed the most.
But hope isn’t a cure-all, and hope in the wrong place is dangerous. That’s something I’ve been confronted with in the midst of my growing uncertainty these past four months. Just like being hungry makes you appreciate your dependence on food or being thirsty brings an awareness of your dependence on water, seeing the funds in your bank account dwindle will keep you up at night with the realization of how useful money is, and to what extent you and your household need it to do just about anything in the world we live in. Point of fact, you need money in this world to get and keep all the other necessities like food and water, shelter and clothing. As Ecclesiastes 10:18-20 says:
“Bread is made for laughter,
and wine gladdens life,
and money answers everything.”
Just like there’s nothing wrong with having and making use of food and drink, there’s nothing wrong with having and making use of money. However, placing your hope in your income or the way you make it is foolish. No matter how useful wealth is or how many things we can do or get with it, money is merely a token – a created means to an end – and therefore wholly inadequate as an answer to life’s ultimate questions.
The Need for a New and Better Hope
In the middle of many sleepless nights the past four months, I wrestled with those questions. Try as I might, I was unable to drive them from my mind. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I worth? It occurred to me in the wake of my layoff that my hope had been placed in wealth and status more than I had realized or would have cared to admit.
And who had I been? A successful twenty-something, married with children, owning my own home, driving to work in a company pickup, and making lots of money. I was smart and important, and I was somebody.
I was here to succeed, of course – to win. And winning meant working for a better company than you, and having a cooler job, and having an impressive resume, and impressing the big wigs when they flew in from Texas or elsewhere.
What was I worth? Well, in the words of Publilius Syrus, “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.” Apparently, I was worth quite a bit – at least for a while, until the price of oil dropped. Then, as my employer began needing to cut costs company-wide, I and all my co-workers needed to be worth less and less for the company to remain profitable.
This prompted a crisis for me, culminating in the layoff I endured in October. If I had measured my worth by my connection with this employer – and particularly by how much they paid me – what was I to do now that I didn’t have those things anymore?
A new anxiety entered my thoughts. What if I never worked for such a prestigious company ever again? Or what if I never again earned that kind of income?
Where Moth and Rust Destroy
What answer could I give to my anxious thoughts in the middle of the night? My soul was desperate for a convincing answer. And, as God answered my prayers for restful nights, I was reminded of Scriptures like Matthew 6:19-21 where Jesus taught:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This is not to say that I didn’t still have anxious thoughts when I remembered verses like this, or that I didn’t still lose sleep sitting awake at night and thinking about worst-case scenarios. Rather, verses like this are how I was able to rest again. As God has reminded me of passages of His Word like this, I’ve also become surer that my hope and identity needs to be in Him rather than wealth and prestige and status, where it had slowly but surely drifted to over the years.
In this way, I feel a kinship with the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Christianity is ultimately an all-or-nothing affair. We cannot be half-Christians, or only surrender ourselves to Christ a little bit. Jesus is either Lord of all or of nothing. And yet, fortunately for us, the core truth of God in Christ Jesus is found in Romans 5:8, that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Bison Painting Revisited
What am I saying? Did I lay up for myself treasures on earth by having a good job working for a reputable company for four-and-a-half years? Or am I still, gazing wistfully at the bison painting on our sitting room wall? No, not exactly.
As I said before, there’s nothing wrong with having money or a good job, nor do I believe God would fault me for having long-term goals and desires like a bison ranch out in the Montana countryside. Perhaps He even placed those desires in my heart. Who knows?
Yet whether I ever again make so much money as I used to, or get the bison ranch we’ve always wanted, the important thing is that my hope is centered on Christ. And God is faithful and provides. As Jesus continued to teach in Matthew 6, we read in verses 31-33:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”