There is nothing more majestic than a bighorn ram navigating its mountain domain where the air is thin and the scenery stunning.
As me and my wife Lisa photographed a gorgeous Rocky Mountain bighorn ram enjoying a natural mineral lick at 12,000 feet in Colorado, another ram appeared.
Popping its head up over what looked like a sheer cliff from our angle, the younger ram carefully made it’s away toward the lick, cautiously approaching the older and larger animal.
I thanked God for the moment because I knew it was He that put me and Lisa on this path.
Six months earlier the Holy Spirit whispered the words “Higher Calling” into my spirit and put me on a trajectory that led me on a path of deeper purpose and of elevated expectations.
As COVID-19 continues to shake the world and people debate everything from wearing masks to rioting, there is no doubt times are confusing.
In his letter to the church in Phillip, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
And that’s what seeing the great animals of the high country reminds me of-God, His Creation and divine purpose.
There was a reason these rams had a mineral lick in their alpine habitat and they instinctively knew they needed it.
When the universe was flung into Creation, those purposes were built into the Earth and the sheep and here we were witnessing it.
There is something pure about mountain air and special about the creatures that thrive in these environments.
Wild sheep don’t always live in the highest altitudes though. They will move down into valleys and fields to feed. And when they do, they are often in grave danger.
There has been a pandemic of sorts ongoing with wild sheep in North America since the 1800s when domestic sheep entered their landscape. Carrying bacterial pneumonia, they transfer it to their wild cousins and the results have been catastrophic.
From two million wild sheep on the continent when Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition to 25,000 or so in 1900 it was brutal.
Hunter-conservationists and concenred fish and game agencies stepped in and through translocation and careful management have brought numbers up to around 175,000 but the threat still exists. And wild sheep still die when the co-mingle with domestics.
Maybe there’a s lesson here for us.
Co-mingling with those infected can only bring trouble.
The coronavirus is one aspect but I am talking about all of the infection of the hateful, vicious fighting over issues that will only truly be settled when the Lord returns. I am talking about the abandonment of honor for fellow humans.
At 12,000 fee that day there were no political debates, election ads, controversies of social issues or division thereof.
It was just me, my wife, what ended up being three Rocky Mountain bighorn rams and a tangible sense of God’s presence.
If I had not heeded the words “Higher Calling”, we would not have experienced this and many things in my life would be different.
This blog would not even exist.
There is something to this whole “Higher Calling” thing and that is for each of us to discover and I believe those who purpose it in their hearts will do so in 2020.
And I am soon heading back to the mountains to do just that.
In January 2019, I had an incredible experience while praying.
The Lord impressed two words upon me-“Higher Calling”.
I could feel the weight and depth of it in my bones as I knew a significant shift was coming to my life. It was one of those few times where I knew the Lord had a message for me to unravel.
Some say He no longer communicates with people but Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice”. (John 10:27)
And in this case, the significance of sheep cannot be overstated.
That prayer time began a journey of soul-searching and a path back toward the very beginnings of my career as a wildlife journalist and even younger.
For starters I knew the Lord wanted me to dedicate more time to Him, studying His word and praying. That was first.
But there was more.
I love pretty much all aspects of fishing, hunting, and wildlife but if someone had given me a chance to do anything I wanted at 19 years of age when this journey began I would have pursued the wildlife of the mountains and forests.
I’ve always written about it but when paying opportunities came in other areas of the outdoors industry, I went where chances to make a living came.
Very much of that for me was in the Gulf coast fishing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. I have loved coastal fishing my whole life so it was natural for me.
But my deepest love has always been mountain and forest wildlife.
So, last year I decided to put all career time outside of what I do at Texas Fish & Game toward writing about and advancing the cause of the conservation of mountain and forest wildlife. That is why this blog exists and the Higher Calling podcast and it has expanded into articles in numerous national and regional publications.
By discerning the two words “Higher Calling”, a new purpose was birthed into my writing and broadcasting and an epic year ensued.
I went from having never photographed bighorn sheep to photographing them in four different states. I went having only hunted and photographed Rio Grande turkeys to photographing the Grand Slam of the four major subspecies all in 2019.
And I managed to bag a big eastern gobbler in New York in the process.
In the fall of last year, we started a new outreach of our ministry called Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions which has the goal of taking kids in our Wild Wishes program into mountain regions to train them to be wildlife conservationists. Wild Wishes grants wildlife encounters to children with a critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling.
Plans were on tap for Central Texas, Colorado, and Montana.
Then COVID-19 came.
The Colorado trip has been at the very least postponed.
Montana is still up in the air and we will probably pull off the Texas trip. But it has been disheartening as we had some special teens lined up for some incredible opportunities that are shaky at best now.
People can say what they want about the coronavirus but at the time of this writing there were more than 60,000 people dead from it in the United States alone and economic depression looms like vultures circling a carcass.
It’s pretty ugly out there.
But I remain hopeful.
I am a follower of Jesus Christ. That means I believe in His virgin birth, death, burial, and resurrection.
And although I fail more often than I would like to admit, I try to follow his teachings and example. It’s why Lisa and I work so hard to help children going through illness and trauma.
And since I believe in a supernatural God, I believe supernatural things can happen. I believe in healings. I believe in deliverance and I believe in hope that we can have great lives despite the chaos.
I was a little boy from a lower-middle-income home who grew up in the oil industry bust of the late 70s/early 80s. We could barely afford to hunt in East Texas near our home much less pursue the great wildlife of the mountains.
My Dad and I would cut our favorite photos out of old Sports Afield,Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines and paste them in scrapbooks. We would dream of hunting around the country together and in our 700 square foot home in Orange, TX we were the best hunting team in the world.
Dad died of natural causes on a hunting trip with me in South Texas in 2014 at age 71. He just shot the second biggest buck of life, topped only by the one he shot on the same ranch the year before. A connection I made in the industry became a friend and let me and Dad live out our deer hunting dreams on his ranch.
I am eternally grateful for that.
I hated to lose Dad but there is no better way or place he could have made his trip to Heaven.
I almost quit hunting after that.
For a couple of years there it just wasn’t the same. Dad was my hunting partner and it felt so strange to be in the field without him. I would always support hunting but two years ago, I had plans no one knew about to go bury Dad’s deer rifle on the ranch he died on and walk away from hunting.
It was just too hard emotionally.
But my friend Josh Slone who came into my life through our Wild Wishes program had been inspiring me to keep at it. Every time we got around each other the conversation was hunting and it often ended up being about our mutual dream of sheep hunting.
You see right after I got the words “Higher Calling”, I found those old scrapbooks in one of my mom’s storage bins.
Opening them up again was like opening up my childhood and being back in Dad’s lap.
And as I looked at the pages I was blown away that the majority of photos were of wild sheep and wild turkeys in that order. And those were the first two things I felt I needed to pursue on the career and conservation side of a higher calling.
The Lord had taken me back to the beginning of my life and a deep, profound love of wild sheep and wild turkeys that was rekindled like a wildfire.
In the ancient Book of Pslams, the Psalmist writes “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
I look back at 2019 and had more desires of my heart fulfilled than I have in 10 years before that from wildlife and career perspective.
And although 2020 has been scary for all of us, I have been able to photograph desert bighorns in Nevada and capture a very rare photo of an eastern turkey in East Texas as part of the Turkey Revolution project.
I had a great hunting season and feel as alive in the woods bow hunting and turkey hunting as I did as a young man.
I am no one special.
But I get to do special things because I put my relationship with Christ first and work extremely hard on the vision of wildlife conservation and helping hurting children receive peace through wildlife encounters.
That is the true higher calling.
Without those two words, I felt in my spirit because I took time to pray, my life would look very different this year.
I am extremely concerned about the status of the outdoors industry that I have made a living in for 28 years. Like most Americans, I don’t know what is next. In this process, I have fears that need to be conquered as a man, provider, and conservationist.
But I am placing my trust in God and realizing I have a cause that is greater than the desire for even commerce.
I would continue using my God-given talent of communication on wildlife’s behalf even if there was no paycheck. I’m going to do everything I can, of course, to make sure the paychecks keep coming but that’s how much I believe in what I do.
This blog doesn’t pay. The podcast doesn’t either. These are things I do because I followed the Lord’s direction on “Higher Calling” and to keep the cause of conservation of mountain and forest wildlife front and center.
Lisa and I have never received a dime for our work with children. All of the money in our nonprofit goes to the cause and we are believing donors will continue to support what we do.
I can’t help but think about Jesus’ quote that His sheep hear his voice.
As His follower, I am one of those sheep and it blows my mind that because of hearing “Higher Calling” and doing something about it, He has led me to the wild sheep He created in the beginning and to childhood dreams never realized.
I thought seriously about this as I photographed a gorgeous desert bighorn in Nevada that actually walked down toward me after I climbed a treacherous mountainside. The beautiful ram essentially posed in perfect sunlight!
In this case, which sheep heard his voice?
Was it me who followed the call?
Or was it the ram?
Perhaps the Lord brought it down to let me know He was there with me when Dad and I were cutting out pictures of rams and putting them in a scrapbook when I was six.
And He was there with me 40 years later on the mountain.
I can’t describe what that feels like.
Sometimes it’s hard to feel truly loved in this crazy, often dark world but as I knew the Lord brought me and that ram together. the Creator’s love was tangible.
I praise Him for the opportunity and for the higher calling.
His love for all of us is astounding. We just have to pray and listen.
Remember, His sheep hear His voice.
And I am living proof He still speaks to His flock.
COVID-19-the coronavirus has caused historic lockdowns of access to countries, states and communities around the world.
And while the human risk should be the first priority, there is huge concern for an impact on wildlife. This is the first in a series of podcasts on this topic as we see how the loss of hunting and ecotourism dollars in Africa could spell disaster for rhinos, elephants and many other species.
Please share this message. It needs to get out there.
This podcast is a must listen and so is this series. More to come…