I walked through a door one day that changed my life forever. It was at the top of a flight of wooden stairs that hung off the outside of the feed store. I was sixteen and searching for something far different than what I found.
I had spent the summer between my sophomore and junior high school years on Grandpa Harry’s ranch in North Idaho, fencing. Not with foils or sabers, but with pliers and stretchers and sweat. I came home with an education in the vernacular that accompanies barbed wire; and with the desire to learn the old cowboy arts of leatherwork and braiding. My great-grandfather had been a rawhider. In Harry’s barn I found his long-forgotten tools, books, and notes; then began to ply my hand at the ancient art.
I was not good at it, and on returning home, quickly ran through the raw materials I’d brought from Idaho. That fall day, at the top of the wooden stairs outside the saddle shop, I hoped I knew just enough to appropriate the right leather and leave, without appearing as ignorant as I knew I was.
Ian Tyson was on the radio and a scrawny guy with big mustache looked up from behind a saddle-stand and studied me. He would have had to stand twice to make a shadow, but the knurled hands that held the carver belied a strength of character and iron poise that the years would allow me to later appreciate. This was Joe. He was a craftsman. And Joe had his ways.
On the third trip to his shop that fall, Joe offered me a job. Not really a job, an apprenticeship. A true, old-school apprenticeship. I would not be paid until I could produce something worth selling. Then I would be paid only in the leather I could use to educate myself and make myself better in the art. By this time, I had learned that Joe had three beautiful daughters and, despite the non-pay issue, I agreed to give it a try.
“For what it’s worth,
"...I think Heaven is riding stirrup-to-stirrup
with your best friends, through belly-high grass,
on your best horse, forever.
Jesus and I think you ought to be there.”
That singular decision, regardless of motive, turned out to be the best I ever made. Joe was more than a craftsman: he was a horseman, a farrier, a father, a philosopher, a teacher, a mentor, and a profound Christian. My education expanded beyond the saddle shop: eventually he agreed to teach me how to ride saddle-bronc horses and then to shoe horses, again as an apprentice all the while showing me what it meant to walk as a Christian.
Joe had his ways. Even now, the kernels of wisdom he imparted ebb and flow into my life as sage gems. As our relationship grew beyond friendship and mentorship, he taught with patience, love and respect. Everything had a double-entendre. Speaking of horses, he’d say, “You have to give to get.” I understood it to apply to horses, humans, and Christ. He taught me “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”; patience and diligence and effort, in waiting for the Reward. He’d say that he was alright to not be wealthy, because he was as rich as he ever hoped to be. This was just his way. He expected me to understand and he expected me to grow. In life, in manhood, and in Faith.
I worked for Joe for about three years. Somewhere in there he started to pay me, or at least he would sometimes let me bring in my own business. I spent more hours with Joe in the shop, in the truck, or bending over underneath horses than I have spent with any other man outside of family, before or since.
Joe loved me and I knew it. What I didn’t know then, was how he groomed me into the man I became. Gently, never harshly, never rushed, and always measured against what he thought I could handle. Between my first and second year of college (freshman and sophomore years denote a successful passage from one to the next), I came home to shoe horses with Joe, again.
That summer, I thought I would marry an Idaho rodeo queen but when she showed up with another guy’s truck and his ring on her finger, I lost it. I’ll spare you the details. I drove across four states for two weeks before I drug myself back around to silently (and smellingly) climb into Joe’s truck at 4:30 one morning for the day’s work; as if nothing had happened and nothing had changed. He took it all in stride. He didn’t pry. He didn’t judge. He was just there.
About a week into my silent brooding he finally looked at me over a bologna sandwich and asked, “Dave, what does Heaven look like to you?” The simple question rocked my shaken world. At that point, I was beyond recognizing normal, much less Heaven. I told him so. He grunted, and half the sandwich disappeared under his mustache. He took a drink of water and told me, “For what it’s worth, I think Heaven is riding stirrup-to-stirrup with your best friends, through belly-high grass, on your best horse, forever.” Then, “Jesus and I think you ought to be there.”
In my worst moment, Joe showed me he loved me the way Christ loves me.
Many things have happened since then. I feel, guiltily, that life swept me away from Joe. Years and miles have churned up between us. Happiness and sorrow; failure and success; the steady drum of time and place have pushed me on. I sometimes yearn for the soft eddies of our companionship: one quiet, humble man tutoring a naive apprentice about life and love; earthly and heavenly. The years make that horizon seem further and further behind.
But Joe has his ways. And Jesus and I look forward to that ride.
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