There’s something magical about the first rays of dawn on a west Texas landscape. This scene gets some strong competition each evening when the sun’s last beams slip through the mesquite and junipers on their way over the horizon. I don’t get to see this every day, but I met a guy who does.
Recently, Darcy and I spent a few days holed up alone at the end of a dirt road in west Texas. It was 6 miles to the paved highway, another 15 from there to town. If you don’t like dead quiet most of the time, and stars as deep as eternity staring at you each night, you might want to stay put in your crowded but predictable world.
If your preference is to take in scenes like this from the pages of nice coffee table books, you’d probably never understand that all of this breathtaking beauty is covered with thorns. If you happen to venture out into it on foot, you’d quickly realize why most people choose photos over the real thing. It’s scorching heat by day and edgy chill by night. Sissies need not apply. This probably explains why cowboys feel so at home here. Cowboys not only live in this terrain, they thrive in it—even when it serves up its worst.
One morning a cowboy slipped out of the sage brush to check on us. Years of hard miles had scarred his boots. A belt with a prominent buckle he’d won matching wits with an enormous animal at some rodeo had cinched his dusty clothes. When he knew that Darcy was coming out to meet him, he spit out his chew and brushed the tobacco residue off of his teeth with his forefinger. As I made the introduction he held his work hat in his hands and gave a slight bow. She was meeting a gentlemen covered in sweat.
We visited with him about the land, the animals, the work, and the ongoing setbacks that were a part of his everyday world. With each trail that our discussion took, his eyes and voice danced with his answers. He LOVED it! ALL of it! He had a wife and two little red-headed daughters who owned his heart. They shared his love for the cowboy life. It was a fulfilling life that was often forced to process pain.
If you know anything about me, you know that God’s grace is more than a spiritual footnote of my faith. I long to see the saving aspects of God’s grace become the defining features of Jesus-followers (kind of like God meant for it to be). One thing that tends to limit the transforming impact of God’s grace on typical believers is how narrowly it’s usually viewed. Synonyms like “nice” and “kind” are the ones I most often hear dropped in its place. Although God’s grace is “nice” and “kind” when it shows up in relationship, it’s also very capable of being “tough” and “determined” when it has to carry out the nastier requirements that go with heart connections. God’s grace applied in real time requires the same kind of grit I see in this cowboy’s love of his work.
With that in mind, let me mention some of the characteristics of what I like to call “cowboy grace.” It’s the kind of grace that saturated the heart of our Savior. It’s what drove Him to the cross to do the gritty work of rescuing us from our sin. It’s the affect His transforming grace is to have on our attitude toward the relationships He calls us to.
- Cowboy grace isn’t afraid of a hard day’s work or a hard life’s work. Like the tough love-work that goes into raising kids to have a heart for God and the determination required for growing older in love with the same person you married. (1 Cor. 3:9-13; Eph. 2:8-10; Col. 3:17)
- Cowboy grace doesn’t just talk courageously, it is courageous. It’s not spiritual platitudes and biblical smart-bombing that our kids want from us. They want to see our spiritual convictions showing up when life sticks a gun to our head. There’s a reason why the expression “talk is cheap” has an equivalent in every language on the globe. (1 Sam. 17:45-47; Heb. 11:1)
- Cowboy grace does the difficult things that have to be done. West Texas wisdom teaches us that before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his or her boots. That way, you’re a mile away from them--and you have their boots. Wise cowboys don’t go looking for a fight, but they don’t back down from one that comes looking for them. Unfortunately, there are three types of people usually involved in a typical conflict: the bullies, the bullied, and bystanders. The cowboy variety of God’s grace doesn’t ever let itself wear any of those labels. There’s nothing gracious about seeing a bully pound away on someone who can’t defend himself or herself—and doing nothing. Think: Calvary and sing the first stanza of Amazing Grace if you’re not sure of what I’m talking about here. Cowboy grace is especially quick to stand up to the biggest bully of Christianity out there—legalism. (Heb. 12:1-4, 14-15)
- Cowboy grace keeps the promises that are hardest to keep. Promises like, “OK,” “I will,” and “I do.” (Psalm 15:4b)
- Cowboy grace rides for the brand. When a cowboy throws his lot with a particular brand, he’s devoted to it--no matter the cost. Unfortunately, some Christians ride under the brand of a church or the brand of their spiritual accomplishments. Cowboy grace rides under one brand and one brand only--the cross--no matter the cost. (Prov. 22:1, Eccl. 7:1; Acts 4:12)
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