By Jonathan Lange, columnist
Last Wednesday’s sun rose upon a gaggle of teenagers who had just summited a small peak in the Wind River Range. It happened during this author’s annual retreat above Sinks Canyon State Park west of Lander.
Nobody was compelled to go. Rather, the campers themselves took charge. They organized a predawn expedition of three dozen youth who assembled in nautical twilight for the climb.
These are the leaders of tomorrow. And the future looks bright. They are filled with the vigor of youth and the usual spunk and recklessness. But it is no longer directionless and careless. Something has been added to the usual qualities of youth. It is almost imperceptible, but it is palpably present. Purpose, unity, determination and grit can be seen in their bright eyes.
The ascent was not a scrambled melee. It was teamwork. The strong helped the weak. The discerning advised the reckless. The fast waited for the slow and the slow happily pressed their limits to keep up. I was a counsellor allowed to be a part of something special. But, like a fly on the wall, I did more observing than guiding. It was a beauty to behold.
I can vividly remember the first day that I met some of these people in the summer of 2015. There were uncertain greetings exchanged as awkward preteens and an inexperienced counsellor met for the first time. We occupied cabin 7 at the Fremont County Youth Camp and were clueless about the routines and rhythms of summer camp. Everything we did took twice as long and was half as good. That was a long time ago.
Slowly, imperceptibly, boys became men and men became leaders. There is no single person who can claim the credit. Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, pastors, teachers and a host of unnamed role models each contributed something. Together, it led to a summit marked by a rustic cross that had been cobbled together from a pair of lodgepole pines.
This experience, while heart-warming, is probably not terribly unusual in Wyoming. Our mountains are dotted with summer youth camps that are booked solid from the spring thaw to late fall road closures. Rocks, water, dirt and pines form an outdoor classroom filled by kids and counsellors from every walk of life. All share the experience described above.
But this year I was privileged to witness something else that I have not seen before. I wager that few have. It happened back in the lodge. Still before breakfast, twelve young men of high school age spontaneously picked up hymnals, stood before 70 peers and two dozen counsellors, and sang the Church’s hymns. The cross at the top of the mountain was not an empty symbol to them. It silently proclaimed the Creator’s redemption of His world. These young men were unashamed to stand before their female peers and lead the song.
It was the recklessness of youth redirected. And in that carefree confession, something remarkable happened. No longer were the adults trying patiently to spoon feed the lessons that youth would need for life. The baton was passed to the next generation.
That full throated song of a dozen young men was like the dawn of a new day. These are tomorrow’s leaders. They recognize not only the need to put a hand to the plow. They recognize, also, the Maker of the plow and the Maker of the soil.
In a flash of light, those present saw the potential of the generation who will lead us out of our present confusion. They are eager to take their place as the builders of tomorrow. And they recognize that true building can be done only by “men with chests.”
That phrase comes from one of C.S. Lewis’ most important writings. In “The Abolition of Man,” he laments that the scourge of Materialism treats human beings as soulless machines. It removes “their chests” and then wonders why they act as less than human.
To treat people as “men without chests” is to address only half of their potential. We should not be surprised when it results in corruption, confusion and chaos in the institutions we once revered. Materialism that denies the spiritual side of man ties one hand behind his back and still asks him to build.
Tomorrow’s generation of leaders is growing to see this folly. It is determined to do something about it. Soulless materialism has led us into a box canyon from which there is no escape. Yet rather than give up the fight, a new generation sees that the way out is the way up.
Beleaguered builders of our day can take heart as these happy warriors come of age. They are the dawn of a new day.