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It’s Time to Kill the Cowboy

Cowboys are at home, not with people, but out on the range, with deer and antelope.  Descended from revolutionaries who declared independence, cowboys live solitary, often lonely lives. It took cowboys to take advantage of America’s vast prairie.  Just watch Lonesome Dove and you ge…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Cowboys are at home, not with people, but out on the range, with deer and antelope. 

Descended from revolutionaries who declared independence, cowboys live solitary, often lonely lives. It took cowboys to take advantage of America’s vast prairie. 

Just watch Lonesome Dove and you get a sense of what cowboy life is like. Cowboys are rugged. Living exposed to the elements, often alone, they learn to be self-reliant. 

These days, we raise our cows in industrial farms. We don’t need cowboys so much anymore, but we’ve got lots of them. You know you’re a cowboy when you look at your childhood and realize it was lonely. And you look at your adult life and realize you often keep people at a distance.

Our modern cowboys live in isolated, lonely places. They learned to not trust others. They may be married, but their low trust ways keep their spouses living in lonely places too.

Cowboy living may work for you. It may be what you’re used to. But it is not how God designed for us to live. When he was finished designing the first man, he declared, “It is not good for man to live alone.” Cowboy living leads to sterile spirituality and solitary lives.

God made us as social creatures. We need others and we have to learn to let them into our lives, to trust them, if we are ever to experience the love that God wants to grace us with.

Our Georgia neighbors have a pony that lives by itself on the farm next to us. It has lots of grass, but when I take my grandsons on a walk by its pasture, the pony comes out to us and takes grass from our hands. It misses the company of other creatures. I’ve heard that even a chicken can be a good companion for such an animal.

That pony is a reminder of what cowboy living feels like. One day on a walk, the Lord whispered to me, “It’s time to kill the cowboy.” 

I knew immediately what he meant. I have lived in solitary, low trust places. I grew up depressed as I went through my high school years.

And the survival habits I learned in that time visit me still. My life is fullest when it is full of other people who I invite into the tender parts of my life. Places where they could hurt me. But places where they could love me in ways that make my heart come alive as well.

The cowboy in me doesn’t know how to navigate those places. He wants to withdraw to safety. God says, “it is not good to live alone.”

It’s time to kill the cowboy.

Comments (25)

  • As a cowboy, this is hard… but, I agree! The day of the loaner is gone; we must embrace community, accountability and building together, from the bottom-up, NO more top down one man show!!

  • Thank you for posting on a topic that is near to my heart. I have a perspective after being on both sides of the “plain”. I don’t write this with the intent to condemn or blame anyone. I am sharing because I’ve been longing to find a way off the horse and to hang up the hat and finding it much harder than I ever imagined.

    For a chunk of my life, I was the opposite of a cowboy. I was married, attending a megachurch with many friends. We were one of the 10 or so “power couples” in the church and we hung out and traveled with many of the others. After unexpected infidelity by my ex-wife and ensuing divorce, I was thrust out of that social life and left literally without any friends. I work for myself and I don’t go to an office so I don’t have any “work” friends either. That was 7 years ago.

    The ministry and ministers at that church are amazing people with an anointing to preach the gospel but had absolutely no idea how to handle one of their “elite” couples self-destructing. I temporarily stepped out of my leadership positions to protect the churches reputation and my ex eventually stopped attending so she took herself out of leadership many months later. No one ever checked on me or asked me to come back so eventually, I decided to attend another church across town.

    So started my journey as a cowboy. I roam the city by myself. Dating occasionally, trying to find sports to play or social events to attend, happy to at least be a dad every other week. I read the small group catalog from my current church with anticipation each cycle and find that there isn’t a single group targeting cowboys. The basketball team at the church is “full” so, even though I’m a good player, I’m told thanks but they already have the team lined up. Leagues outside of the church require you to put the team of 6 or 7 guys yourself and even though I’ve asked, aren’t willing to help put singles onto teams that might be running short of players. I served for a while at church as an usher but everyone was married and there just wasn’t opportunities for any social connections from that. I’ve attended meetup groups outside of the church and while I’ve found a few that I can make connections with, there hasn’t been any that have pulled me out of staying a cowboy.

    I am very social, pleasant to talk to, good looking, a good listener and stay up on current events so while I don’t believe there is any specific reason for me staying a cowboy, I do believe the longer I stay one, the more withdrawn I become and the harder it is to not feel judged when I do get opportunities. The power couples at my current church sit together and socialize with each other (just like I used to). The small groups stay focused on married couples, teens, seniors or the all-important group called “women only”. The time before and after services I walk around and shake a few hands of a acquaintances but have never been asked to an event or gathering. The few “friends” I have from work are all married so there isn’t a lot of opportunity for connection there. Being on this side has been eye opening. The loneliness, judgement and lack of opportunity to connect is heavy. After a while you feel pretty dusty and out of place when you do ride back into town.

    So my journey as a cowboy continues. I tell you all of this not to condemn you or church life in general but to show you that even the cowboys are looking for ways to retire but find many rivers and mountains that make it hard to do so. I felt like your post dealt with a topic that is rarely discussed and while I appreciated it, I must admit to reading it hoping to find some action plans that ended up not being there. In my worst moments, I would say it read like cowboys were a problem and needed to be eradicated. I hope rather that your intent was to start discussions like this to find ways for us cowboys to start recognizing our hesitancy to return as well as to hopefully spur the church on to find ways to welcome us back.

    • Jeff – do you live in MI?

      I resonate with your story. It hurts my heart that the body of Christ is so dysfunctional. It isn’t always like that, but when it is, it’s sad. I know that God has got people who could connect at a heart level with you. If we ask God to reveal them, I believe he would.

  • Having been born in Lubbock, Texas and living in Dallas-Forth Worth for fifteen years off and on I understand the spiritual metaphor here. I’ll also confess that the Dallas Cowboys are a sports passion. Sorry. Some of the most self protecting, defensively minded, “deflective of intimacy” people I have known are loud professing followers of Yeshua. There was a sordid season–now long–ago where that ethic was a modus operandi and trust me there was no shortage of people in a shallow tribe driven by a “form of Godliness but denying the power thereof.” That’s a verse I learned in the rigid Bible memory confines of a Baptist church AWANA program many decades ago. Authenticity can’t occur one-way. People baring their hearts to nodding heads unwilling to share their own struggles only means you are in the specter of a spiritual Machiavelli who professes “community” but is thoroughly intoxicated by power–often subterranean–but devastating nonetheless. I don’t wander into any tribe anymore if people aren’t honest about their limps. The purpled scars and electrocuted innocence has a firm boundary there now more resolute than any political promise to build walls. I love you Seth. Pax Christ.

    • Butch – thank God for true friends! Thank God for brokenness that doesn’t spill out on others and cause further wounding.

      Let’s choose to be a part of a tribe that believes God for radical honesty and grace. I love that you are focused on getting there, as am I. Yes, we limp mostly. And if that’s obvious to others, then maybe its an invitation. Just beyond the horizon there is a party going on with people who limp who are being healed as they come together and celebrate the healer.

  • That is the path Seth. Thank you. I tell people (and myself) that we need to speak mostly out of our *scars* not open *wounds* because the mostly unhealed hurts, bitterness and hot anger– even when having a righteous cause– will spew bloodied infection on others. I have been guilty. I’m thankful to still be on a path with you and Karen more than thirty years later.

  • Seth, thank you for your kind reply. I take responsibility for my life as its unfolded so no illusions there. But I think your cowboy metaphor struck home due to its double meaning of both the loneliness and learned reluctance that comes along with riding the path alone. Its been really eye opening to see churches and their causes that I once threw my life into be so blind to a form of widow that is in their midst (taking care of the widows and orphans has taken on a new meaning for me).

    The good news is the Good News. Jesus is King and he’s been by my side as I walk. Your post began to speak to the need we all have for community and belonging. For now, I quietly attend, tithe, pray and try to grow hoping His plan for me includes those things in my future.

    I actually do live in Michigan (west side of the state). I’d appreciate the chance to be sharpened and comforted by friends in Christ. If you have suggestions or connections in mind feel free to email me them at your convenience. I appreciate your ministry and the open mind that you bring to issues that confront His body.

    Thanks again.

    • You were made for relationships. There are some non-plastic Jesus followers in your town.

      I’m going to pray into some possibilities. I reached out to a friend. I’ll get back to you if anything turns up.

      • Wow! He responded three minutes later and says he thinks you may already be a friend of his! I’ll connect the two of you by email. I’m praying God is in this. It is starting out like one of the miracles he sometimes do to show his kiddos that he hears them and knows what they’re feeling.

  • I can certainly understand and relate to Jeff’s story. Mine is similar except I lost my husband by death. We were very active in church and had a lot of friends. After he died things changed. Some people shunned me as if tragedy is contagious. Some people tried to relate but over time people went back to their “normal” lives and activities. We attended a mega church and at the time there wasn’t even a grief support group in place. I still consider many of these folks friends, but generally just the “facebook” variety. Twelve years later I still find it difficult to find close church friends. Our society is just not set up for long married people who suddenly become single older people. It can be frustrating and heartbreaking. It does become easier to isolate over time as the obstacles to connection are large. I pray we grow in understanding for the “displaced” people in our church family. I’m starting to explore a large Christian single group but attending activities alone is intimidating for me. I’m doing my best to break out of the cowboy mold. Thanks for your insight into this issue. God bless you for talking about it.

  • Pam, we have never met. Your comments are heartfelt, authentic and filled with important practical questions. Thanks for being real. Jeremiah 29:11

  • I can definitely relate to that. I’ve spent a lifetime longing for close relationship and connection, only to pull back or push away when the opportunity presents itself. But then the dangerous people, those I let right in, too deep.

    • Kim – good to hear from you. I’m praying for your heart. You are a treasure. Those who get to know you are privileged.

  • This is really good Seth, I see this mostly in my parents generation, they didn’t start out as cowboys, but they were wounded in community and then gave up. Now, they are completely alone, no friends. Gary and I have looked at that time and time again after feeling wounded by community, and challenged ourselves to stay in, no matter what. Love you my brother.

  • Hi Seth. In North Carolina as I send this. Last night there was a wonderful conversation with my brother Mark and his wife Esther where your blog content precipitated a thoughtful discussion about the notion of “community” which in turn lead to a subsequent question of “What characterizes a *healthy* one? There was agreement that the “cowboy” must die. It was also our conclusion that being in a toxic community is the only thing worse than do life and a spiritual walk solo. The great thing about God is that like Abraham one can strike out for a new country with healthy compadres if the one you are in is too broken. You and Mark Lucas are in my prayers today for Kathy’s memorial service. Life is short. She lived hers well. Blessings.

  • Wow… You *must* realize how God uses you to touch others – it’s undeniable. I saw the title of your post and just didnt want to read it – like so many others of your blogs, I just had a feeling it was going to speak truths that I don’t want to hear and have no idea how to accept.

    I have a long story that honestly requires book length discription, just as I know many others have. I was shocked to see so many responses to your post and couldnt help but cry for all of the lonely and hurting people and for myself.

    I know God loves me. I have a fabulous life group with people I know love me and who I absolutely adore – but I am never able to fully be myself – just a person who works very hard at appearing “normal”, I suppose.

    I grew up in a world contaminated with abuse of every kind and neglect; thus sayeth the world, I myself am contaminated – part of me knows this is not accurate but as I sit here and write about it, I realize there is a part of me that believes it fully. Unworthy. So, I spend my life alone and work to try and help protect children who have been abused and neglected. I work so hard.

    No amount of therapy has ever been able to “fix” whatever is broken in my psyche. I’m positive God knows how, I just don’t know if I know how to accept that and live it and survive.

    I have Native American ancestry – not tracable, but my cousin, the one person I trusted fully with everything, had the features. We didnt play cowboys and indians. We played indians. Ha. He died 15 years ago this March. I know, “Indians” were not lone peoples – they had a family, a tribe and everyone was connected – like we are to be – in, with and through Christ.

    It was interesting to read the bit about God knowing that Adam needed someone else… I had that discussion with Him the other day. I cling to the option/possiblity, that God wants to keep me to Himself – I am supposed to depend on Him after all. How can I be alone when I have the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit AND a four pound Pomeranian to keep me company!?

    Yes, yes, I know – that’s still being alone. and lonely. I think perhaps one of my biggest secret around my “Christian friends” is that I smoke cigarettes. It’s a hushed subject but it is part of who I am right now. I could NEVER smoke in front of a Chrisitian “friend”… So stop smoking. Riiight.

    I read something last night that said, “I wish people would stop judging me for smoking cigarettes, they dont know my life. To survive what I have with only cigarettes left as a vice is nothing short of miraculous.” I judge myself enough. I know God would much prefer that I be healthy and I know there will be and are consequences. I also hold to the fact that He still loves me. However, it is another reason that I remain the lone…. cowboy… I guess. For now. Definately a way to “Kill the cowboy” although I know that isn’t what you were saying at all.

    Self-induced alienation from people. Purposeful isolation. A lonely life indeed – it’s not something I can just – change – it’s a long standing mode of self-protection, programed into my very being from infancy. I’m not ready to kill the cowboy.

    My faith and hope comes from the Lord.

    I praise and thank Him for sending people who can poke me, nudge me and make me think. Thank you for what you do and who you are.

    • Suzanne – thanks for the gift of your story. You yourself are a gift that others need. Your pain is not unlike the pain of so many who need your wisdom and your honesty. The body of Christ is broken. If we wait for perfection, it won’t come until we die. I risk showing my brokenness knowing that I may be judged, but it’s the only way I’ll connect with other members of the body.

      I’ll pray that you can find some followers of Jesus who look beyond the rules of men to the heart of God beating within them.

  • Jason;

    Thank you so much for your encouragement and all of the words.. it seems silly to need a reminder every now and then that God has already conquered anything the enemy has to throw at us… Your message was like a personal note from God. I had chills and couldnt stop crying. So, thank you for going along with that nudge. Next attempt at quitting is March 6th when I go for the PVT with my daughter.. I should just say my quit date is March 6, 2017.
    God is so so good.

  • Thank you!! Definately not the first attempt; asking God to make it the last one – as in I wont need another attempt…

  • it’s such a shame that the ‘church’ is so shaming and exclusive (I’ve experienced it). It’s a shame that ‘para-church’ and secular groups do a better job of being the presence of Christ (I’ve experienced that)!
    i remember as a child wanting to be a cowboy. Looking back at that time in the 1950s, I now realize it was a way of hope to deal with a system of psychological abuse and rejection. It validated what I needed to do in order to survive that time. My internal ‘little cowboy’, along with God and physical activities, got me thru the trap, but not without long-term costs. Only after experiencing a major later-life jolt did a door open for me to experience re-orientation, by way of a chapter of M.A.L.E.S. (Men As Learners and Elders). Then, for the first time in my life (at age 63), i experienced real confidentiality, safety, acceptance, and freedom to be honest without fear of rejection or worse. (When I sit with a small band of men and experience hearing from the depths, it’s like we’re sitting in the presence of God!) Continuing to meet with such men occasionally has had a major positive impact on my relationships with my spouse, children, and others. In fact, my wife encourages me to spend time and financial resources to participate! (that means she sees some changes in me.) I hope that at least some of you can either find such a group or develop one.

    • I’ve heard good things about M.A.L.E.S. – good to get this report from you, Phil.

      We men need help connecting and doing so deeply.

  • Suzanne,

    You know the reasons to quit, and it isn’t because you feel the need to hide it from your Christian friends. Are they/ will they really judge you for smoking? Or is that a lie from the enemy to keep you a cowboy? If they are/ have pray for them, they need it (as we all do). If you do feel that they have judged you for smoking, is that really what they are doing? Or have they poorly expressed legitimate concern? I have certainly been guilty of that. I don’t have the answer, just felt a nudge to try and help you explore it. It sounds too familiar to me. I have often said that the enemy isn’t original, but he is quite persistent! I believe he would like nothing more than to keep you alone and especially separate of other believers. And that isn’t a stretch if he can using something as strong as a smoking addiction to do it. If God is asking you to quit, ask Him for the help to do it and keep trying. Another lie of the enemy is that once we have failed it is over, keep trying until we get it right! I believe that is what we are called to. I know many people who “failed” at quiting smoking multiple times before they were able to give it up for good. As a nurse I say that any day you can not smoke is better than another day smoking.

    I will pray for you.

  • All the time!

    We all need those reminders, but it still gives me chills to see Him do it!

    I am putting it on my calendar so I can pray for you during that time.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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