It happened in the summer of 2007. Charlie Ross was eight years old. I don’t remember how old Fancy the cat was, but she was there too, stretched out in the grass licking herself. Ross and I were having lunch in the backyard swing, when something large and black entered my peripheral vision. I immediately turned to see a gigantic black bear with her three tiny cubs only four feet away from us. I slowly put my hand on Ross’ knee and whispered, “Shhh. Don’t move.” Fancy, clearly not understanding the situation, abruptly ended her bath and jumped to her feet. Cats. I knew then that we were doomed. Trapped in the corner of an L-shaped house, the door behind us locked from the inside, we had nowhere to run. We probably could have outrun her. Ross and I are pretty fast. Just kidding. I’ve seen how fast a bear can move, so I knew that wasn’t an option. I began devising a plan to save my little cub in the event that she decided to save hers. “If she comes for us, I will jump on her and hold on so you can run into the house and call 911. Ross began quietly weeping. But it never came to that. She kept walking away from us, her cubs frolicking toward the woods. In a moment of hope, I foolishly thought we could make it to the back door at the other end of the house. “They’re leaving. Let’s make a run for it!” Ross, in all of his eight-year-old wisdom, not convinced that the coast was clear, grabbed my arm and held on for dear life. “Let’s just wait until they’re gone.” Turns out the coast wasn’t clear after all. Momma Bear didn’t follow her cubs into the woods. She circled back around, disappeared behind my yellow 1974 VW Bug, and reappeared on the other side coming right for us. But she wasn’t coming for us. She picked up the bag of cat food in her mouth, made a guttural noise at her cubs, and the happy little family left the yard in the same direction they had come. Our world safe again, we bolted for the back door and collapsed on the couch, overwhelmed by that strange emotion that lives somewhere between a deep laugh and a cry of terror. We felt free again, escaping certain death after an eternity in captivity. We take our freedom for granted. I’m glad this bear was free to roam her mountain. I’m not sure I’ve seen a creature quite like her—beautiful in her jet-black coat, frightening in her power, graceful in her movements, tender in her motherhood. In trying to describe this moment, I realize I have overused the word ‘awesome.’ Too often I apply the word to describe things like sushi or a favorite hot drink or the frozen pizza Ross and I were eating in the backyard swing—none worthy of an emotion combining dread, veneration and wonder. This creature was awesome in every sense of the word. I was overwhelmed. That never seems to happen at the zoo. Maybe it’s because Ross and I were for a moment caught up in that thin space where wild and dangerous things mingle with those beautiful and sacred.
I wonder if that’s what Biblical authors are trying to describe when they write about the ‘fear of the Lord.’ We dare not get too close, but unless we do, we’ll be forever captive, forever caged. We will never truly live. To those who came close, Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We celebrate freedom today. Thanks be to God.