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If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in Heaven give good things to them that ask him?
The campfire cast its glow upon my father’s face and revealed a man not yet old, but wise beyond my youthful understanding. He listened quietly as the rest of us told and retold the stories of a day still fresh in our minds, but also fading just enough around the edges that small inconsistencies crept into the retellings.
I had shot a Cape buffalo that day. It had been my first buffalo on my first hunt in Africa. My parents wedding gift to my wife and I had been a hunting trip to the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia. The camp sat on a high bank of the river and was so far from civilization that it required a twenty-two hour drive to bring in supplies. The few local villagers lived in small conical grass huts with dirt floors. It was a place where urgency did not exist. It was a place where you could not help but hear that small voice whispering from within.
I was younger then and even more naïve than I am now, but when I stared across that fire into the eyes of the most genuine man I have ever known, I began to understand that hunting was about so much more than what I thought it was. I thrived on the challenge of the hunt and found greater satisfaction coincided with greater effort. But it was staring across that ethereal flame that I began to see why my father first took me hunting so many years ago on the Nebraska prairie. He took me hunting because he understood the value of simply spending time together in a place where God can speak to your heart. He wanted me to understand how it felt to give yourself completely to the day you were in. He took me hunting because he knew relationships mattered above all else. And he wanted to share all of that with his family. We never spoke about such things and why they mattered, but I am not sure we had to. He could listen to me tell my buffalo story and know more about me than I even knew myself because he had also hunted buffalo. He had shared one of the most intimate parts of himself simply by taking me hunting. Ultimately, he took me hunting because he loved me.
It was sitting around that campfire with family and new friends when I started to realize that I knew something significant about my father because I had hunted a buffalo. I understood how what seems like a simple stalk can turn into a long hard tracking session. A session that can go on for hours in heat so oppressive you can almost feel it pressing down on your shoulders. I knew first-hand why the trembling you feel following a wounded bull into the tall grass is a good thing. I knew how hard it was to take that extra step. Most of all, I began to understand why my parents loved Africa so much and why hunting Africa’s buffalo was something every serious big-game hunter should experience at least once. Like my father, I could not imagine once ever being enough for me.
Sixteen years after that hunt, after that campfire, after my father’s earthly life had ended, I realize how much I miss the too few hunting camps I shared with him. However, I also understand that he taught me something I can now teach my children. I can teach them that I love them. I can help them understand that God is found in the simplest forms of Creation. I can teach them that God is truly found in the relationships we have with each other. And I can teach them all of this simply by sharing with them the passion for hunting and fishing that God has placed in my heart.
I want to share many campfires with them. I want to see the joy on their faces as they reel in a big walleye. I want to listen to them tell their stories. I want to love them the way my father loved me—without condition and without thought to what is in it for me. So I will take them hunting and I will take them fishing and even if they never find a passion for those things the way I did, they will get to spend time with their father in places where the world does not suffocate their spirits with noise seemingly so urgent it cannot be ignored.
Maybe we will talk about these things. Maybe we won’t. But we may not even have to. Sometimes, just showing your child you love them by including them in the things you love is enough. Sometimes they may understand it right away. Sometimes, they may not fully understand it even after you are gone. But what we do matters. And the way we do it matters.
I remember how my father’s face was alit by the glow of that campfire. Behind him, the constant whisper of the Luangwa River soothed the fears of what was lurking in the darkness. It almost allowed me to forget the water was packed with crocodiles and that just the night before three lionesses prowled through the camp drawn by the smell of fresh blood in the skinning shed. And the clear sky revealed tiny pinpricks of light piercing through time and space to remind us how small we really were.
For a moment it was almost quiet and I looked at my father. He smiled at me. It wasn’t much of a smile, mostly just a tightening of the lips. But he said so much in that simple, knowing gesture.
I paused one more time to look up into those stars before heading to the chalet. The size of the universe and the secrets it held were unimaginable. Our planet was like a speck of dust and I was not even a speck on it. I should have felt wholly insignificant at that moment. But I knew something that night that was more powerful than death itself. I knew my Father loved me.
My dad is gone now, but the Luangwa River is a memory I still share with him. And because he cared enough about an ungrateful son to share himself with me, my dreams are now sprinkled from time-to-time with buffalo and the promise of adventure. I may never make it back to the Luangwa Valley, to that place where my father introduced me to Africa. That’s okay. Maybe it’s even better that way