When I am in the Badlands, I can think. I can breathe. There is space.
This wide-open big-sky environment in South Dakota is fertile ground for unhurried pondering about life. I noted last week in Part 1 that on this trip the question of identity was a subject of much contemplation. Thoughts about how I get my identity. And what exactly that identity is. Do I create it? Can I make it whatever I wish it to be? Is it this fresh reengagement with my photographic career that will ground my identity into solidity? What about the identity that comes from family? Or friends? And the familiar haunting thought of performance: surely my identity must be largely based on how I perform in this life? Some semblance of success must factor in, right?
But these ponderous wonderings did not inhibit successful wandering and image making in the spectacularly rugged Badlands. The patterns, shapes, color, and tones grabbed my eye at most every turn, and I took great pleasure in composing some of the more abstract images. At other places along the main scenic road views opened up into mini valleys ringed with jagged little peaks, and at this time of year splashed with the lush color of sweet yellow clover.
As afternoon turned into evening, the softer warmer light photographers crave began to give even more pleasing shape to this land. Unsure of where I would end up for last light and feeling the tension that accompanies a landscape photographer’s desperate search for a good composition, I drove back and forth on the scenic loop and prayed for God to open my eyes to his beauty, to lead me to a spot where I could see and taste his glory and capture it well. Eyes peeled for a compelling view, I came across a close badlands hill that I thought might give the height needed for a decent angle on the other side, and I pulled over to check it out. I walked back the 30 yards without my camera to see the potential and was about to put boot prints into the soil when suddenly my eyes were opened to the beauty of that little hill full of texture and enhanced by warm side lighting. Immediately I realized this mound would not be a mere footstool for a better view, but was in fact the focal point of the composition itself! With the glee that floods over me in these moments when I’ve found something aesthetically pleasing, I ran back to the truck to fetch the pack and tripod and got back to the mound as fast as my aging body would allow. I rushed to set up the shot before the waning light disappeared behind clouds at the western horizon, and everything came together wonderfully through the viewfinder. Yes, I thought, God is so faithful and sovereign even over the seemingly small stuff in our lives, to direct and guide and reveal.
Now on my last day of shooting I drove around a curve and suddenly jerked the truck over to the righthand shoulder to park as I saw multiple cars and people stopped and figured there was local wildlife to see. The camera came out when I saw an adult Bighorn sheep standing on the ridge next to the road. After a few snaps I turned around and there was a baby Bighorn lamb resting in the shade on this hot summer day, set in a rugged section of the Badlands. It felt amazing to witness this little creature and make a few images, but it was not until days later that I realized the significance of the symbolism therein. After my good friend Slavomir noted the Biblical theme apparent to him, and after dwelling further on the topic of identity for writing this post, the picture of the innocent little lamb in a rugged wilderness became for me a visual exclamation point to set off the words I closed the Part 1 post with, a sentence God placed in my mind last week:
Is your identity based on your accomplishments? Or is it based on the One who already accomplished everything for you?
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:20b, ESV)
Now I saw visually in the image of that Bighorn lamb the constantly needed reminder that this One, the tender and spotless Lamb of God, has graciously given me the only foundational identity worth basing this life, and eternity, on. Christ on the cross once for all accomplished everything for me for and all who believe, a lavish gift granted by grace through faith. Because of his performance, rather than scrape and claw trying to build an earthly identity for myself, I can learn to rest in the identity assigned to me by Jesus: a child of God born into a new heavenly family, fully accepted and forgiven for all time, eternally loved by the Father and Son and empowered to live by the indwelling Spirit, a member of Christ’s body united worldwide with all who call on his name.
Family and friends still matter. Vocation is still important. Seeking excellence in what I’m called to do is still honorable. But when I intentionally preach the truth to myself of my new identity in Christ, given to me by grace, then I don’t have to make these other things foundational (and stressful). I can enjoy family and work without feeling desperate for those good things to give me my prime identity. Child of the King is quite enough identity to stand on! To meditate on this truth gives the freedom to go out and love and work and risk in this world without the debilitating fear of performance failure.
What about you, readers? Do you ever wonder about who you truly are? About what in this brief life grounds your personhood? Gives you meaning? And purpose? What are your thoughts about where your own identity rests? What do you see as your true foundation? I so welcome your sharing in the comments!