The wild West was “wild” in the truest sense of the word. As untamed and unpredictable as a wild bronco, a man could get lost for good in its vast arid prairies and harsh mountain terrain. Many did. But the West was also a place where wanderers could find a home. He could hire on with one of the great ranches that had staked their claim out there and then he could ride for the brand.
“Son, a man's brand Is his own special mark
That says this is mine, leave it alone.
You hire out to a man, Ride for his brand
And protect it like it was your own."
He said, "Mr. Waggoner Come out here in 1903,
This country was sagebrush, mesquite trees and sand.
He carved him a ranch Outa blood; sweat, and guts,
So be proud that you ride for his brand.”
-”Ride for the Brand”, by Red Steagall.
To “ride for the brand” meant being loyal to your employer, to respect his achievement and protect what’s his as if it was yours. It meant to die for it if necessary. If a cowboy didn’t like the ranch he worked for he was free to go, but if he stayed on, if he stayed loyal, he could expect loyalty in return.
“So if you don't like your outfit,
Then head down the trail,
Find a hoss that your saddle will fit.
But if you get up early
And catch your own bronc,
Show the boss that you're makin ' a hand;
Mr. Waggoner'll be there
To cover your bets
As long as you ride for his brand."
-”Ride for the Brand”, by Red Steagall.
In the wilderness of the West, life depended on a cowboy’s choices. He could ride for himself, or he could ride for the brand. To ride for the brand meant protection, family, and home. It meant conquering the wilderness “out there” by first conquering the wilderness “in here.” To ride for oneself meant, of course, freedom in the wild, but no man finds rest in the wilderness. In the end, he only finds himself, alone, without protection, without a friend, and without a home. You ride for the brand, or you die alone.
Who do you ride for? Do you ride for the brand of the cross, or do you ride for yourself? It’s not a comfortable question to answer if you’re honest. The wilderness sings its siren song to us all. It calls to ride out on our own, to reject the restraints of serving Christ—indeed to reject the very idea that He exists—and to cry in the words of William Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
In John chapter 10 the Apostle contrasts a “hired hand” with the “good shepherd” or in our terms, one who rides for himself and one who rides for the brand. The hired hand works only for the wage. When danger or difficulty looms he abandons the ranch and leaves the herd defenseless. The good shepherd stands his ground and fights. He even dies if it’s necessary to protect the cattle wearing his master’s brand. Which are you? Will you stand and die for the brand? Or do you stand only for yourself?
The correct answer is, “Neither.” You and I neither ride for the brand nor for ourselves. We’re neither the good shepherd nor the hired hand. We aren’t the cowboy in St John’s story, we’re the cattle.
That’s right, the Christian worldview rejects all this pagan pish-posh which make us out to be the heroically loyal knight or the beautifully tragic rebel. We do not ride for the brand, we wear it on our leathery rumps.
The true cowboy, the only one who really rides for the brand, is Christ Himself. He was the only man who has ever been the master of his own fate, and he mastered himself to submit to the fate His Father gave Him: bitter suffering and death on our behalf.
In the fires of His suffering Jesus forged a brand in the shape of a cross and a crown. Then He staked His claim on this whole wild world and burned that brand into our foreheads and hearts. We are His, not because we ride for the brand, but because He did. He herded us in from the wilderness, tamed us, fed us, and still cares for us. We bear his brand, and all the world can see that we are His.
Have faith little one, Christ rides for the brand and He will never, ever, stop.
- Brandon Booth