And I’m on my way, I still remember
These old country lanes
When we did not know the answers
And I miss the way you make me feel, it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill
-“Castle on the Hill”, Ed Sheeran
Every person has within them a true childhood, a time before we passed from the simple silhouettes of youth into the weary fractals of maturity. It was a joy undimmed by tears, a trust that had never really seen into the depths of the human capacity for evil (our own included), a hope that had no reason not to follow the beat of our heart into pure anticipation for what each day could bring.
And each of us also has, I think, a picture in our minds that captures that time for us. For me that will always be the hills of Augusta County in farm country, where I grew up.
I see a skinny kid walking through a cornfield. He has curly brown hair that never will quite obey the comb, in jeans and boots, 22 rifle over one shoulder, wearing a yellow Little League hat with the number 13 on it. Apparently Bryan Foods was the only sponsor we could get, and – of course – we were the Bologna team. I think the only consolation we really had was that we weren’t the Vienna Sausages… And yes, 13 was always my number.
He walks intently, as though he’ll miss something if he doesn’t get there in time, or if he doesn’t notice what he’s searching for. The boy is browned by the sun and his clear blue eyes flicker near and far, now scanning the horizon, now looking left and right. He tops the ridge and pauses, looking down the valley.
Down the hill and on the other side of three tired strands of barbed wire, a herd of cows is moving quietly past, chewing intently, oblivious to everything but the patch of grass in front of them. He looks at their white and black contours against the murky brown of the pond beyond them, thinking about how peaceful cows can be when you just let them do what they want, compared to how hateful they are when you need to give them a shot or do just about anything else they actually need.
He thinks of a delightful four-letter word he heard a Mennonite boy say the other day when kicked by a cow, and all of a sudden he feels a wave of guilt. The pastor said Christians don’t curse. But as he reassures himself with this, there is a deeper wave of doubt – what else don’t Christians do? Is there really anything a Christian hasn’t done? Can they be as hateful as cows, when you push them to do what they don’t want to? The thought intrigues him, and he stores it away for later; much later. He will not truly reckon with that until he is 39.
The boy walks on, and out of the corner of his eye he sees a writhing, black crosshatch of motion in a clump of grass. It is a snake. He stops to look at it, remembering that blacksnakes are good because they eat rats. But as he looks closer, there is a soft gray thatch of fur at the far end of the snake. And he sees that it is eating a rabbit.
The rabbit is a young one, otherwise the snake would not be able to overpower it, even one that is six feet long. Its head is completely in the snake’s mouth but it is still alive, although it looks like it’s losing. Every now and then its back feet kick and its tiny rib cage heaves, struggling to hold onto the life it has just begun to taste of. But the snake is patient. It slowly constricts every time the rabbit moves, drawing it inexorably into the darkness of its own need for life.
Although the sight is fascinating to a 15-year-old kid who specializes in guns and knives and wrestling matches, there is a cloud of pain that strangely comes over his heart as he watches. Somehow it suddenly seems deeply wrong. Somehow it seems to him that a being should not need to take the life of another to sustain itself; that the beauty of existence should not be touched by pain and be snuffed out; that sentience should not be consigned to futility. Tears come to his eyes, and he feels that it is weakness to be sad, and quickly wipes them away. But he cannot wipe away the lump in his throat. It will be long before he comes to know that it is indeed weakness to be sad, but that such weakness is the only real strength. He will find that such strength is not to be found in any human being, but only in the perfect Son of God, who gave Himself as a ransom for all people. He will come to know Jesus, who for the sake of those He loved made Himself like that animal, helpless and afraid, unwilling to let go of life, but with all of eternity hanging on the outcome – hanging on whether His Father was truly a Resurrection God.
The wind moves gently over the pasture, and seems to wash away the feelings that he has been struggling with. The sun is shining and there is a hymn-sing tonight at church, and it occurs to him that maybe that cute girl he met from Richmond last summer will be there. His heart lifts, and he turns and makes his way back toward the farmhouse in the distance.
In the dawn of our lives we have each of us watched the sunset over the castle on the hill. As we move closer toward it in maturity, we come to realize that it is not the shining city with ramparts that as children we so fondly imagined. It is a ruined and crumbling remnant, standing bravely against the onslaught of time. But in the trace of its outlines we see the hand of a wise Designer; and we know in our hearts that it will one day rise up into a City with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Photo credit: Corfe Castle, Oliver’s