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Sling Shots, Oak Trees, and Summer Mornings

By Dan Schaeffer

It had been 27 years, and I was a little rusty, but I could feel a twinge of excitement, something from long ago returning. My son and I walked under the shade of the aged oaks and sycamores, the dry brittle leaves crunching under our feet.

We talked of slingshots. My son had a brand new store-bought model he had saved up for and was dying to try out. I was describing the homemade slingshots I had carved from oak limbs as a boy. The sun filtered down between the twisted limbs of the trees, dappling light about on the forest floor.

My son was giddy with the excitement of a five-year-old with his first sling shot. When we finally reached a good spot, I searched for the largest sycamore leaf I could find, dry and brittle, and pressed it into the crevice of an oak for a target. After a few brief safety tips, I turned him loose to shoot, and me to remember.

It was an identical summer morning 27 years ago, where a skinny toe-head with a handmade slingshot stood in the midst of another stand of oaks and sycamores. He was alone, but it didn't matter. It was enough just to be alive that morning.

I remembered almost everything about that morning. I had been awakened early by the sunlight streaming in through my window, beckoning me to wake and join it outside.

Lying there, I listened to the morning calls of the birds. A sharp whistle that rose, fell slightly, then rang clear and crisp and long. One bird called, and another replied. I drank it in. I felt something at that moment, something undefinable, something wholesome, good, and natural. It was something I was never to forget. It was a lazy, summer morning in the country.

Neglecting breakfast, I rushed outside to my front yard. We lived on the outskirts of a small country town in an old 1921 schoolhouse my father was turning into our home.

Tall aging trees that had probably been there before the school was built, surrounded it; nearby grew an apple tree and a plum orchard up the street. These trees were to become my playmates.

I would swing on them, climb them, pick their fruit, build clubhouses in them, and act out incredible adventures in them.

But not this morning. This morning I was going to learn how to shoot my slingshot, and their huge trunks were going to provide me the kind of target my modest skill demanded.

Gripping the rough wooden handle of my new weapon, I grasped a tiny stone in the leather strap, pulled back with all my might, aimed it at the trunk of one of the largest sycamores, closed my eyes, and released. Almost immediately I heard the rock hit, solidly, and opened my eyes in surprise. What a shot, what a thrill, what a morning!

It was the beginning of many summer mornings, with my trusty sling. I remembered the first time I placed an acorn on top of a can, and with pinpoint accuracy, shot it off without knocking over the can. I was never able to repeat the shot, and no one saw it but me, but I did it once.

And I remembered the time I shot a bird. I had shot at many birds and squirrels, but always missed. This time I didn't. There was the immediate thrill of exhilaration, as I saw the target fall, then the sorrow and regret as I looked at the beautiful thing lying motionless, out of place, on the ground. It might have been the one that had awakened me on so many mornings. Sadly, I picked it up and buried it, becoming a wiser boy than I had been before.

My son, who had been practicing his shooting against the oak, had finally moved close enough to where he could hit the sycamore leaf. With a whack the giant brittle target cracked and crumbled, and he yelled in victory.

He then handed the slingshot to me, and began exploring the forest floor. I gripped it for a moment, lost in memory. It wasn't like my old carved wooden model, it was plastic. I had wanted to carve one for my son, but he had been impatient, wanting to buy one with his own money. I had really wanted him to experience the moment exactly as I had, that's why I had brought him here. But, it couldn't be.

Then something from memory flashed in my mind, and I laughed inwardly. I remembered that I had wanted a store bought model too, when I was a boy, but I never had the money.

I picked up a nice round rock, one that wouldn't swerve in the air like a Frisbee. I hadn't forgotten everything. Aiming the rock, I gripped it in the leather sheath tightly, studied a point on the oak standing about 20 feet away, kept my eyes open, and released. Instantly, quicker than I remembered, it struck about a foot lower than I was aiming, but smack dab in the middle of the trunk. I smiled.

It took me six shots before I hit the leaf target I had positioned for my son, but finally I drilled a hole right through it. I yelled for my son to look, and he glanced over and smiled, but then turned away, looking for a stick to throw.

I stood, momentarily disappointed in his reaction to my sling shot prowess, then understood. He had nothing left to prove, and too much left to experience in this forest.

There was bark to examine, sticks to throw, dry leaves to crumble in your fingers, red ants to observe, and an old water spigot sticking out of the ground. He wasn't going to miss all this by spending all his time trying to hit a target on a tree.

I was suddenly very proud of him. I had spent too much time trying to hit targets in my life, and not enough time examining bark, throwing sticks, and crumbling leaves in my fingers.

How much time had I spent trying to hit all the targets in my life, consumed and tunnel-visioned until they were accomplished? When I completed High School, I had but one target, my Bachelor's degree. So I spent five years shooting at that target. Nothing interfered with that goal.

I worked forty hours a week and went to school at night, taking as much of a full load as my energy allowed. All my waking hours were spent studying for class. I took no long walks, gazed at few sunsets, never reflected on the purpose for it all, and told myself, "It is good." I finally hit the target, but the euphoria was short lived.

I got married, but the pace didn't slow, because now I had a new target, my Master's Degree. It was a three year program and I was driven to complete it in three, regardless of the pressure that would put on my job and life in general. It would be my badge of honor, my trophy, and would prepare me for the lofty title of "pastor." It didn't matter that I now had a wife and young daughter, life was something that had to be finished, not simply enjoyed. The race again. I had to win, even if I was only competing against time, or myself.

I worked hard, studied hard, stayed up late and finally finished. I hit the target, but again the thrill was brief. It lasted one day, graduation day to be exact.

But now, I needed a new target. No time for resting or contemplating or enjoying, there were new targets to aim for. With my education finished, my career replaced that first acorn on the can, and I was just as determined to succeed.

I launched into my new career, tunnel-visioned and driven more intensely than ever before. My marriage was good and I dearly loved my daughter and new son, and I did spend time with them. But while often Daddy was physically present he was mentally off somewhere shooting at targets.

Until one day, in the midst of my target shooting, my promising career momentarily collapsed. Facing the first major crisis of my career, I felt in danger of losing my position as pastor and everything I had worked so long to achieve. It was as if God had removed the targets from my life, and then asked me if I could still find happiness. I was ashamed to admit I didn't know.

I had never even faced the prospect of missing my target, much less having it removed. But it was during those days, that He slowly began to reveal to me that target shooting wasn't very fulfilling, even when the target was admirable. He reminded me of every target I had ever hit, all the goals I had accomplished, and how the happiness they brought was transient. No sooner had I accomplished them than I found myself restless and ill at ease. The degrees and trophies gathered dust while I busied myself searching for new targets.

I remember the day I woke up and wondered what would happen if all my precious targets were permanently removed. I was lying in bed, the way I had as a boy on a summer morning, too many years ago, and I again heard the birds sing. It was a strange sound that I hadn't heard in awhile, not because they weren't there, but because I had stopped listening. And it startled me to discover that if my targets were suddenly removed, the sun would still rise, the birds would still sing, God would still be on His throne, and I would still be the eternal object of His great love.

Suddenly, my targets seemed much less significant. The process loomed as more important than the product. I began to decompress, and look, and listen, and rest. Vacations became more frequent and time with my family more precious.

Goals are still important to me, but now they've changed. I want to gaze at the mountains that God made to remind me that all my earthly targets pale in significance to Him. I want to stand barefooted in the banks of a rushing mountain stream with my children and remind them that with all our sophisticated technology, we are still dependent upon God for our very lives.

I want to go rafting down a beautiful meandering river with my family and spend lazy summer days teaching my son and daughters to fish. I want to experience the sheer joy of roasting marshmallows over an open camp fire, gaze at His handiwork in nature, and marvel together at the awesomeness of our God who could make such pleasures out of nothing.

I want to spend entire evenings gazing into the beautiful eyes of my wife, dreaming dreams together, talking of our future. A future where happiness is not based on just hitting targets.

God wanted more for me than just the occasional thrill of hitting an earthly target. What my son somehow knew intuitively, I had lost or forgotten somewhere in my past. Sometimes the wisest fathers are those who are able to learn from their children, as well as teach them.

Why did my heavenly Father make trees so graceful and beautiful, instead of making them all look like telephone poles? Did a sunset have to be colorful? Was there a purpose behind the myriad magnificent colors of flowers? Yes, they told me something more about the nature of the God who created them all. He delights in the beauty of His creation and beckons me to join Him. "It is good," He said, and He still means it.

Beautiful lazy summer mornings and magnificent oak trees were my gift from Him, just another expression of His love to me. It was so simple and clear and uncomplicated a child could understand it. As I watched my son throw sticks with joyful abandon, I prayed that he would never forget, and I would always remember that important lesson.

Soon, we had to go, but even the journey back to the van was an adventure. We ran along an old rock wall, jumping over limbs that grew over it, and ventured into a deep ravine, finding great enjoyment in trying to scramble out of its steep gravely walls.

On the way back I thanked him for bringing me along. He looked at me, confusion evident on his face, this blue-eyed toe-head of mine. With his hair mussed, and face flushed from the heat of the day, he said, "Daddy, you brought your own self." How could I explain that he had returned me to a place he had never been, and reminded me of things I had once known? I didn't try.

However, on the drive back, we promised to come again and speak more of slingshots, oak trees, and summer mornings.

"Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him." (Psalm 62:5 NIV)

"Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)

boy with slingshot


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