Relative Comfort

I’m not an expert horse trainer. I am, at best, a novice horseman…maybe more of a wannabe horseman…which is okay, too.  My only horse experience has been working with our own horses.  So, take my observations with a grain of salt…I have a fairly narrow experience spectrum in regard to horse behavior.

However, the more I work with horses the more I find myself thinking of them as natural comfort magnets. Horses naturally move toward what feels comfortable and they naturally move away from what feels uncomfortable.  Their level of comfort or discomfort can be either physical or emotional…it often seems largely intuitive…which makes sense for prey animals.  It’s important to avoid anything intuitively perceived as uncomfortable…potentially dangerous.  It is equally important to gravitate toward comfort…food, water, shelter, safety.

I have begun to think of horsemanship as largely a matter of managing a horse’s comfort levels and comfort zones. Horsemen talk a lot about pressure and release.  Pressure is basically mild discomfort applied to solicit a response.  The release is basically comfort applied as positive reinforcement of desired behavior.  So, pressure and release are basically just using comfort and discomfort as training aids.

Horsemen also talk a lot about desensitizing…training a horse to be comfortable with something that has previously made him anxious. Basically this is a matter of incrementally expanding the horse’s comfort zone.  To desensitize my horse to an object, I expose him to it in small doses, letting him become comfortable with it first at a distance, then close up, then very close, then touching, then rubbing all over his body.  I incrementally step him from terrified to comfortable by gradually expanding his comfort zone to include the object of concern.

The tricky part comes in knowing when to apply comfort, when to apply discomfort, and to what degree.

For example, let’s say a horse has been taught to load in a trailer and normally has no issue loading. But one day I go to load that horse and he balks.  He backs away from the trailer door and doesn’t want anything to do with it.  Now, a lot of horse owners at this point will say, “I hate when a horse knows what to do and refuses.  He’s just being stubborn and defiant.”  Acting on that basis, they will then firm up and apply increasing pressure (discomfort) outside the trailer with the intent of getting the horse to load in the trailer.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes that is exactly what the horse needs in order to find the confidence to go ahead and load in the trailer.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the horse will respond by more actively avoiding the trailer door.  And here is where it gets tricky…

If I respond to my horse’s reluctance to load by firming up and assuming he is being defiant, my natural response to increased resistance will likely be to become even firmer and more aggressive. That can quickly escalate into a contest of wills which I cannot win…the horse is too much bigger and stronger than I.  More significantly, by battling out a contest of wills right at the trailer door, I am turning the trailer door into a high pressure zone…a place of discomfort and suspicion…which is the opposite of what I want.  A horse who loads easily is a horse who feels comfortable and confident both around the trailer door and inside the trailer.

Now, here’s where the comfort management comes in.

For whatever reason, the horse was initially uncomfortable with the trailer door on this particular day. My escalation of pressure didn’t work and resulted, instead in making him even more suspicious of the trailer door.  I’m increasing pressure outside the trailer with the intent of getting him to move through the trailer door to escape the discomfort I’m creating.  However, the situation is rapidly devolving to trap the horse between two escalating sources of discomfort.  Most likely, the horse will attempt to escape both sources of discomfort by moving completely out of the area.  He will probably try to flee the area, even if he has to buck or rear to do it.

At that point it’s probably best to walk away and try a different approach…maybe one that focuses more on comfort and less on discomfort. Successful trailer loading begins with the horse feeling very comfortable in and around the trailer.

Where the comfort management gets really fun is in realizing the horse is also sensitive to different levels of comfort and will tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable. If I’m going down the road and want my horse to move toward the left side, one way to cue that is to press with my right leg so my horse will move left, away from the pressure.  I haven’t really caused any discomfort.  I’ve just set up a situation of relative discomfort.  I’ve made the right side feel a little less comfortable than the left side so the horse will move left, away from the less comfortable.

Once I started experimenting with relative comfort I wanted to see how light a cue my horse would respond to. Before long, I could get him to step left with just a light brush of my right leg.  Then I decided to take it one step further.  What if, instead of creating relative discomfort I created relative comfort.  Rather than pressing with my right leg, I lifted my left stirrup away and my horse stepped left.  The lifted stirrup created a lower pressure zone of increased relative comfort which the horse gravitated toward.

Rather than using mild leg pressure to push the horse the desired direction, the lifted stirrup sets up a mild comfort differential to invite the horse to step the desired direction. It’s the difference between leading versus pushing…the difference between inviting versus compelling.  The really cool thing about this approach is I never did anything to cause discomfort under saddle.  Instead, I invited him from a place of comfort to a place of greater comfort.

Comfort under saddle is important because my long-term goal for my horse is for me to be his greatest source of comfort.  I want the place beneath my saddle and between my legs to be his greatest comfort zone.  When we’re riding and encounter something he views as scary, I want him looking to me for direction, confidence and comfort rather than running scared.

Disclaimer: Lest I give the impression I’m a better horseman than I am, let me clarify that not every ride is as smooth and light as I have described here.  Some rides are a bit rougher.  Even most good rides require a couple of times using enough pressure to “give the horse a reason to respond to the light cue” as Carson James likes to say.  However, some rides really are that light and smooth…and with practice those light rides are becoming more frequent.

Reflecting on the response of these horses to varying levels of comfort, I realize I’m not so different from a horse. I too am drawn toward comfort and repelled by discomfort.  I also tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable.  In tense or fearful situations, I too look for a source of comfort.

No wonder Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter!

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)

Like my horse, in stressful situations I tend to flee to a place of comfort. There may be any number of comfort sources I may turn to…and there may be nothing wrong with many of them.  However, sin can be addicting for the very reason that it provides temporary comfort…and any comfort source (other than Christ) raised to a high level of priority can become sinful.

Much like my goals for my horse, God’s goal for me is for the Holy Spirit to be my greatest source of comfort. My greatest comfort zone should be abiding in Him.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)

When I’m scared or stressed, I need to learn to run to Father for comfort and direction.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

What a wonderful Savior, who leads us from comfort to comfort with light gentle cues!

Your thoughts?

 

A Light Ask

Sonny and KnockoutHalter in hand, I walk through the pasture gate and approach my horse. He looks up from grazing, facing me, expectantly.  As I approach, I walk toward his shoulder rather than his face…horses sometimes seem intimidated by a direct face-to-face approach…and I want my approach to be welcomed.  They’re prey animals…programmed by the Creator to be sensitive to such things.

I extend my hand in greeting for him to sniff and catch his eye. It’s always polite to say hello before asking favors from others.  Once welcomed into his sphere, I gently pet his shoulder and neck.  Then I step back to pet his face and show him the halter, “May I put a halter on you?”

After slipping the halter on and fastening it, I take up the lead line and start to lead off, “Would you please follow me?”

I lead slightly to the side. Horses tend to be naturally less resistant to a side-tug than to a head-on tug.  It has to do with directional strength and balance.

He may follow right away. Often, though, he’ll hesitate.  He’s not being stubborn.  He just feels the pull of the pasture’s comfort, knowing I may ask him to work.

As I feel the lead line straighten and resistance start to build, I pause without looking back. I’m not yet pulling.  There’s just enough tension in the rope for him to feel it, but not anything to brace against.  I am asking him to follow.  I am not demanding that he follow.

I feel a little slack as he shifts his weight forward, “Okay, I’m coming,” and respond by giving more slack back, “Thank you.” Then more slack is added as he steps toward me.

I take a step, feel the rope lift, then feel it go slack again as he steps with me…and I give slack back, “Thank you!”

Now, we’re moving together in synchronized step. He times his steps to match mine…as we both feel our connection through the lead line.

This is it! 🙂

This is the start of a good ride.

It starts right here, with a light ask…a soft response…a well-timed release…leading to synchronized movement.

Isn’t that how God leads us?

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake. (Psalm 23: 1-3)

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; (John 10:27)

As the cattle which go down into the valley, The Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So You led Your people, To make for Yourself a glorious name. (Isaiah 63:14)

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)

Shouldn’t this be how we interact with other people?

What would happen if, rather than demanding our rights or trying to force others to see things our way, we, instead, gave a light ask, then responded to the slightest change by dropping all pressure? Might that work better?  Might that more closely resemble how God approaches us?

What do you think?

Confederate Monuments

I was born and raised in south Arkansas, and am still a proud resident of this beautiful state. I grew up with a sense of pride in my heritage, both as an American and as a Southerner.

My family history includes oral traditions of ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War…of men walking the picket lines at night seeking out a beloved cousin fighting on the opposing side, for the purpose of sharing news of loved ones back home. I was raised with a sense of respect for soldiers on both sides of that horrible war. Participants on both sides of that war were largely made up of decent men fighting to defend their homeland.

From the Union perspective, the Confederate soldiers were rebels fighting against their own country. From the Confederacy perspective, the Union armies were invading their homeland.

I’ve always struggled with discussions on the topic of what causes were represented by each side of that war. The oversimplified version in the history textbooks tended to express the causes as simply slave states versus free states…as abolitionists versus slave owners.  I always felt the need to push back against this view…to defend my Southern heritage.  It’s not that the slave –vs- free narrative is false…it is factually based.  Rather, it is that it fails to adequately express the complexities of the issues at the time.  More importantly, it fails to express so much of what is good about our Southern heritage.

General Robert E. Lee is a good example of what I’m talking about. General Lee was a product of his time and his culture.  Some of his views seem very oppressive by our standards.  Some of his views seem very liberal by the standards of his culture and historical period.  Before the war, Lee argued against the institution of slavery.  He also argued against secession from the Union.  Yet, when his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, Lee chose to fight for his homeland.  There is something to be said for Lee’s sense of loyalty, honor, and duty to his homeland, regardless of the broader issues of his time.

In every earthly heritage (aside from our spiritual heritage in Christ) there is both good and bad. There are things worth honoring and things to be repudiated.  The South is often remembered for slavery, bigotry and racism…things to be repudiated.  However, the South also has a strong sense of hospitality, grace, honor and loyalty…things to be honored and remembered.

This is not true just of the South. America also has a history of slavery, as does Western Civilization in general…as well as World History.  We have many things in our various heritages to be proud of…and many things that should be repudiated.

I grew up with a strong sense of pride in my Southern heritage as well as my American heritage. I also was raised with a strong stance against racism in any form.  For me, these are not conflicting positions.  I find no contradiction in being both proud of my Southern heritage and strongly opposed to racism.

I was in second grade the year the public schools were integrated in my home town. My parents were very outspoken in favor of the integration and in support of Civil Rights.  My mother volunteered my siblings and me to help with cleaning, repainting, and maintaining the public school buildings in preparation for the integration.  Many of my second grade schoolmates informed me they had been instructed not to associate with me, because my family were “n*****-lovers, Jew-lovers, hippies and communists.”  I was forced to learn at an early age to take a stand on an unpopular position in the face of both name calling and physical threats.  I learned to smile at the name calling and respond, “Well, I reckon so…Jesus is a Jew and I love him with all my heart.  I love all His children, too…of all races.”

So, yes, I have very strong opinions in opposition to racism.

I also have pride in my heritage as a Southerner. I have a love of history and enjoy exploring historical sites while visualizing the scenes from long ago.  I am generally in favor of maintaining historical monuments and cultural symbols.

Lately, though, some of the symbols of the historical Confederacy have been confiscated for use by white supremacists as symbols of racist ideology. And lately, I have become more aware that some things that are, to me, simply symbols of a history and by-gone era are, to others, symbols of oppression, slavery, and racism.

In hindsight, I can understand why.

The Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America for the explicit purpose of protecting and preserving the institution of slavery, as well as all the institutional racism that accompanied the institution of slavery. Yes, this is an over-simplification.  Yes, there were other issues involved…issues of a constitutional crisis…of state’s rights…of economy…of fear of a slave uprising…of violence perpetrated by abolitionists.  Yet, all of these to one extent or another were brought to fruition as a by-product of the slavery issue.  Slavery was the central issue at the time, and even a brief summary of the various constitutions of the states making up the Confederacy make this abundantly clear.

So, despite my personal view of embracing the good while repudiating the bad, it really was quite predictable that symbols of the Confederacy would be viewed by some as symbols of racism and white supremacy ideology.

This becomes even clearer as we recognize that the vast majority of Confederate monuments are not historical to the era of the Confederate States of America at all. The vast majority of those monuments were erected 60 to 100 years after the Civil War ended…for the explicit purpose of preserving symbols of a fading ideology.  I don’t know exactly what the erectors of those monuments had in mind at the time.  I would like to think they, like myself, were interested in preserving memories of the good of our heritage while repudiating the bad.  However, since that same era saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the fact is that many of those monuments were, in all likelihood, erected for the specific purpose of instilling a sense of pride in a culture of institutional racism.

So, should the Confederate monuments go?

As sad as I would be to see them gone…and as a proud son of the Southland I would be sad…I would far rather see them removed than to see them used as symbols of hatred and racism…or to see them viewed as symbols of oppression and fear.

So, yes, it is time for them to go.

Some might could stay, such as those explicitly commemorating a battlefield or maybe those truly historic to the era of the Confederate States of America.  Some might could be recontextualized or moved to museums accompanied by explanations of why they were erected and why they were removed.  But any monuments erected during the Jim Crow period for the purpose of validating racism need to go, one way or another.

And all this rhetoric about slippery slopes and where to draw lines…rhetoric about are statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson going to be next…it is just that…empty rhetoric to support an unsupportable position.

Why?

Because, whether we like it or not, the Confederate States of America was founded for the specific purpose of protecting and preserving the institution of slavery. Whether we like it or not, the Confederate symbols have become symbols of racism, bigotry, hatred, and white supremacy ideology.

The same is not true of the United States of America.

Yes, slavery existed in the early days of American history…that is a historical fact. However, the United States was not founded for the explicit purpose of protecting and preserving the institution of slavery, nor are monuments of American Independence viewed as symbols of racism and hatred.

The slippery slope argument is an illogical argument…an attempt to equate two completely different things that simply are not equal…with the intent of shutting down reasonable discussion of the topic.

That’s how this proud Southerner sees it.

Faith thru Fear

horseback riding on gravel roads

Riding Gravel Roads

It finally happened!

That nagging worry at the back of my mind found fulfillment. My worst fear became reality.

…and it was okay…

I’ve been riding Knockout over a year, now. Sometimes I’m able to ride as often as three or four times in one week.  Other times I go as long as three weeks between rides.  I figure I’ve averaged about one ride per week…which means I have about 60 rides on him

We have made amazing progress in 60 rides!

Knockout has matured from a green-broke, frightened, spooky, flighty colt to a pretty reliable young horse.

My progress has been no less remarkable in my own way. I began riding Knockout as I was recovering from cancer treatment and my physical strength has returned as we worked together.  I have learned a lot about horsemanship and relationships.  I have learned a lot about myself.  I have faced a few fears and overcome a few insecurities.

The first time I rode Knockout I was scared. Cancer treatment was quite an ordeal, and to be honest I was feeling pretty fragile.  I didn’t trust my own lack of strength or my ability to recuperate.  But I was determined to ride him.  So, I thoroughly disked the arena to a nice smooth carpet of thick soft dirt, and climbed in the saddle.

That first ride started out pleasant enough. We walked around the arena both directions a few times with no mishaps.  I asked for a trot and Knockout sprang into a gallop.  Startled, I pulled back…and Knockout promptly bucked me off.

I stood up, dusted myself off, realized I wasn’t hurt…smiled…and remounted.

That buck-off was the best thing for my confidence. It showed me I wasn’t as fragile as I’d come to believe.  I could still take a fall from 14 hands into soft arena dirt without doing any damage.

Knockout and I have done around 60 rides since then. We’ve come a long way in learning to relax under saddle.  We’ve done a lot of work on transitions from walking to trotting to loping to stopping to backing…and every combination thereof.  And we’ve developed a relationship based on clear communication, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

There’s a limit to that trust, though. Knockout is still a prey animal and prey animals are prone to flight.  That first ride was not his last time to bolt or buck…nor was it my last time to panic and mishandle a situation.  We’ve had several opportunities to practice the one-rein stop.  We’ve also had plenty of opportunities for me to practice relaxing and going with him when he startles.

The startles are now much less frequent. They’re much more controlled when they do happen.  And I respond much more calmly than I did previously.

Overall, at this stage, I consider Knockout to be a pretty solid young horse…and us to be a pretty solid team.

Yet, I’ve still retained this nagging concern at the back of my consciousness. What if Knockout bolts in thick woods?  How would we deal with an all-out runaway situation through thick trees and low-hanging branches?

It’s not a pretty picture…and no matter how much I tried to plan for it I had trouble envisioning a happy ending to that particular scenario. Out in the open, I have time to respond and room to maneuver.  I have options like turning a big circle or performing a one-reined stop.  On a narrow trail through thick forest, there is neither room nor time for any of that.

So I dealt with it the best I could…by trying to minimize the risk of it happening. Riding the gravel roads, we practiced transitions over and over, going from a walk to a canter…from a canter to a full stop with backing…from backing straight back to a canter.  We practiced over and over, building muscle memory…building confidence…so we were both more comfortable with speed and with sudden application of the bit at speed.

Yet the nagging doubt at the fringe of my consciousness still nagged…because I knew practice while we’re both relaxed and focused is not the same thing as a real life bolt on a terrified horse who believes he is fleeing for his life.

Yesterday morning we had a really nice ride down the gravel roads. Knockout wanted to turn up a trail running through a pine thicket and I decided to go with him.  We rode about a quarter mile or so down the trail and all was good until we came to a place where the trail runs between two large oak trees with low hanging branches covered in dense foliage.

I reached my right hand out to move a branch aside and Knockout startled at the sudden movement of the leaf-laden branch. Normally, this would not be a big deal…normally I would lightly check him and that would be the end of it.  This time, though, Knockout’s startle carried us deeper into the thick foliage, moving and rustling the entire branch.  To Knockout, it must have seemed as if the whole forest had suddenly lunged toward him in an attack.  My light check was ignored and Knockout plunged forward…crashing us both thru the pair of low-hanging heavily-leaved oak branches…with lots of added movement and added rustling.

As Knockout leaped into a run, I thought, “This is it! This is that runaway ride on a terrified horse through dense forest!”

My next thought was, “Keep your seat! Keep your seat, stay calm, and ride it!”  Which was followed by, “We really need to stop!  Now!”

Firmly grasping the reins in both hands, I took a deep seat in the saddle and pulled back to ask for an immediate stop, “Whoa!”

For a split second, Knockout sat back on his hindquarters. For just a split second, he responded to my cue to stop.  But in that split second I felt his energy gathering for another leap forward.  Experience told me that next leap would either be a terrified bolt through the bit or a bucking fit to escape the pressure of the bit from the front combined with that terrifying ‘predator’ chasing from behind.  In that split second, I realized Knockout was trapped between a rock and a hard place with adrenaline-fueled energy that was going to release somewhere.

In that split second, I dropped all pressure from the bit and gave Knockout plenty of slack in the reins.

Knockout leaped forward again…as he landed and brought his hind hooves under himself, I took another deep seat in the saddle, leaned back, and drew the reins in, “Whoa!”

Again, Knockout sat back on his hind quarters. Again I released pressure, putting plenty of slack in the reins.

And we walked off.

That was it. Three leaps…two whoas…and it was over.  The catastrophe was averted and we were once again calmly walking down the path through the pine thicket.

I smiled, leaned forward, petted Knockout’s neck and told him what a brave horse he is for trusting me enough to follow my direction even when he is terrified.

As we continued the ride home, my smile grew as I realized my worst fear had become reality…and together we had handled it just fine.

Yesterday, my confidence grew just a bit. I believe Knockout’s confidence also grew.  We were both scared, yet we both chose to listen to each other and to trust each other…and we learned that together we can handle tense situations just fine.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality in order to take the next step in building confidence.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality to take the next step in building confidence. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of life experiences that seemed catastrophic at the time. Loss of loved ones…a failed marriage and subsequent divorce…child custody battles…a 20 year employer closing their doors…cancer diagnosis…

And you know what? Through every one of those situations, God has proven Himself faithful.  He has been my constant friend and companion thru every difficulty.  Through those difficulties, my faith in Him has grown and our relationship has deepened.

When our worst fears become reality is when the relationship is given a chance to be tested and proven.

 

How about you? In what areas has your confidence grown through seeing your fears become reality?

 

Impossible Lightness

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool with a light breeze…a welcome respite from our usual hot, humid, sultry August weather in south Arkansas.

I woke early, had a cup of coffee, and headed out to saddle a horse. I had at least a couple of hours before the rest of the family awoke and intended to fully enjoy the morning.

I wanted to ride the woods trails this morning. I’ve avoided the woods the past couple of months, opting instead for arena or gravel roads.  The woods oppressively confine the suffocating heat and stifling humidity, creating an environment rich in biting insects.  This morning’s low temperatures and light breezes carried hope of an enjoyable woods trail ride.

I brought Knockout (our six year old AQHA gelding) up for grooming. I was pleased to see the scrape on his side has healed.  It was just a minor scrape such as horses acquire while running the pasture with other horses.  However, knowing the rub of a saddle pad can interfere with healing of wounds I had refrained from riding him the past week.

Saddling up, it crossed my mind to wonder if we’d have any issues on this ride. Young horse…cool morning…hasn’t been ridden in over a week…taking him to an area he hasn’t been in a few months…thru trails likely overgrown during the summer…a recipe for disaster?  Just as quickly, I put the concerns aside.  Knockout was calm and my confidence in him has grown as I’ve worked with him the last few months.

I mounted, petted him a couple of times, then barely lifted the reins. Knockout eased forward and I just moved with him as he slow-walked down one side of the arena.

As we passed the pasture gate he turned his head right and acted like he wanted to go out. I lightly twitched the left rein and gently rubbed my left calf against his flank.  His attention returned to me and we continued around the arena.  “Good,” I thought, “he wants to go out in the pasture, which is where I already planned to go.”

I pushed Knockout into a trot. As we circled the arena to approach the pasture gate again I slowed my movement and he dropped to a walk.  When we reached the gate, I leaned back and he stopped.  I untied the gate, grasped it in my right hand, lifted my left stirrup away and pressed my right calf near the girth.  He responded with a left counter-arc step…another ask and another step…then a third.  Now the gate was open enough to walk thru.  I cued a left hindquarter turn and Knockout responded by swinging his hindquarters around 180 degrees so we could pass thru the gate as my right hand slid along the top gate rail.  Once Knockout’s tail cleared the gate post, we side-passed left to close the gate.  Easy-peasy…  😉

As I turned and looked down pasture, Knockout moved with me, walking easy in the direction I faced. Knockout started drifting right a bit, headed toward a different route than I had in mind, “Hey, Joe, let’s go this way.”  I moved my left stirrup away, “I’d rather go left, Knockout,” and he came back to center.

Next step, Knockout eased right again. Again, I brought him to center with a lifted left stirrup.  As he started to step right again, I gently brushed his right shoulder with my right calf, “No, really, Knockout, I want to go left toward that tree I’m facing.”  Knockout proceeded on a straight line toward the tree while facing straight ahead, “Hey, Joe, I changed my mind.  I think this direction feels a little more comfortable.”

As we approached our usual creek crossing I noticed the sandy soil had eroded considerably in recent rains, leaving a fairly deep trench with steep sandy sides. Knockout walked to the creek, stopped, then turned his head to look back at me, “Are you sure this is safe?”

This time I agreed with his concern and looked right downstream, “You’re right, Knockout. That looks a little dangerous.  Why don’t you find a safer crossing for us?”  A few yards downstream we crossed at a wider place with no steep sides or deep trenches.

Coming out of the creek crossing, I looked toward a large oak tree at the back fence line and lightly squeezed my legs. Knockout responded with a long trot on a straight line.  Trotting thru the middle of the cattle herd, we both watched the cattle in our peripheral vision, without breaking stride or turning our heads.  We both stayed focused on each other and our ride.

Not far from the back fence line we turned thru an opening in the tree line to cross into the next pasture. What a surprise awaited there!  A huge flock of Canadian geese were scattered across the pasture.  As we trotted straight toward the middle of the flock, about a hundred geese took flight simultaneously.  It was quite a sight!  Yet we never broke stride or turned our heads.  We continued trotting straight toward the next tree I had picked as a direction marker.

Nearing the start of the woods trail, I slowed my movement and Knockout responded by dropping into a walk as we entered the woods. As expected, the trails had overgrown a bit, but we smoothly navigated between tall brush and overhanging branches with the lift of a stirrup here and a brush of a calf there.  Smooth…light…soft…easy…graceful.

It was truly an amazing ride!

On the one hand, no one thing was particularly spectacular. No one thing stood out as something we hadn’t practiced before.  Yet, it was amazing to experience it all coming together in a continuous flow through the entire ride.

I hardly ever moved my reins. I barely even moved my legs.  Yet we communicated beautifully.

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea it was even possible to steer a horse with anything other than the reins. I thought light horsemanship was neck reining instead of plow reining.  Even when I began to learn a little about the possibility of softer cues, I wasn’t very interested…it all sounded rather mystical.  I certainly never thought I could ride with such lightness!  And the idea of training a horse myself would never have even crossed my mind as a possibility.

Yet, here I am riding this amazing creature with incredible lightness! Yes, I realize the next ride will likely not be quite as smooth.  But I also realize there will be more rides that are as smooth.

So…why am I writing this post about a wonderful ride with my horse? Many of my friends and family who aren’t into horses won’t really understand why I would go on and on about how well my horse handles.  Many friends who are accomplished horsemen may think it’s pretty humorous I’m just now learning things they’ve known their whole life.  A few friends who are pursuing horsemanship may appreciate and relate to my experience.

But here’s the thing. The really crazy part of this whole adventure is that I shouldn’t be doing it to begin with…but I am…and I’m loving it!  🙂

February of 2016, I was at the low point in my cancer treatment. I had been diagnosed with cancer the previous December and undergone two surgeries.  Then spanning January to March, I went thru seven weeks of radiation treatment twice a day and chemo treatment once a week.  The surgery took a major nerve to my right shoulder, leaving me with limited movement of my right arm.

The end of January, during the middle of a chemo treatment, our horse trainer called to tell us the 4-yo colt we’d left with him for 60 days was not going to work out. He said the horse was “training resistant” and recommended selling him and buying a better prospect.

Sherri and I left from the chemo treatment and drove 3 hours to the trainer (without returning home in between) to pick up our colt. We got him home to discover he had been mishandled, was injured, and had become very frightened of men.

A couple of weeks later, I told Sherri, “I’m going to learn to rope. I want to rope with Dawson.  I’m going to learn to rope, and I’m going to rope on Knockout.”

Now, think about that for a second.

I was no horseman by any measure. I was a poor rider with little experience and no skill.  I knew nothing about training horses.  I had never roped.  I had very limited motion in my right arm due to a surgically removed major nerve.  I was undergoing chemo and radiation.  I was very weak.  Most days it was all I could do to keep enough calories and fluids down to make it thru the day.

And here I was saying that not only was I going to learn to rope and learn to train horses, but I was going to start with a horse who had been rejected by a professional trainer, who was afraid of men, and I was not only going to train him to ride, but I was also going to train him to be a roping horse.

That’s pretty audacious! Why on earth would I say such a thing, much less work to follow thru on it?

Has God ever asked you to do something that just didn’t make any sense?

Do you remember the story of Naaman who came to the prophet Elisha asking to be healed of leprosy?  Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be cured of the leprosy.

It made no sense! Why should he wash in the Jordan River?  Wasn’t the water he washed with good enough?  He wasn’t even dirty.  Why should he wash?

Yet, despite the instructions making no sense, Naaman followed God’s direction and washed in the Jordan River seven times…and was healed.

That’s what this was like for me. I was supposed to learn to rope?  I was supposed to learn to train horses?  I was supposed to train a young green-broke, tense, energetic, spooky, flighty young horse to be a roping horse?  It made no sense!

I can’t even explain how I knew I was supposed to do this. No prophet told me to.  God did not speak to me in an audible voice.  Yet, somehow, the Holy Spirit made it clear to me this is what I was supposed to do.

Here I am a year and half later.

I have decent mobility in my arm…which my physical therapist attributes directly to my determination and perseverance in working with that young colt…and to practicing roping.

I’m still not great at roping…but I’m steadily improving.

I’m far from mastering horsemanship…but this young horse I’m working with has sure come along well.

We’re not roping calves or steers yet…but I regularly swing a rope from his back and push calves around the pen.

We’re still working on the fundamentals…but we’re getting pretty close to seeing all the pieces come together to try roping.

Eighteen months ago this looked like an impossible task…right now it’s looking pretty achievable.

God sometimes asks us to do things that sound crazy…because all things are possible with God.

Along the way, I’ve found a lot of healing. The horsemanship and roping have aided both physical and emotional healing…for both Knockout and myself.

And I have learned a lot! I have learned to do things that I didn’t even know were possible to do.  I’ve learned a lot about myself.  I’ve learned a lot about relationships and communication.  I’ve even gained a better understanding of God and of His position toward us.

The master horsemen, Ray Hunt, Bill and Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, all wrote about horsemanship as a lifestyle that affected every aspect of their lives. They believed it not only improved their relationship with the horse, but also their relationships with people.

I can see why…and am learning from them…

I still don’t know the full reason God asked me to do this. But I’ve already seen a huge return on the investment…and believe there is even more to come.

God still asks His people to do crazy things…and He still does the impossible.

 

Your thoughts?

Closed Womb

I usually restrict my blog topics to areas in which I have some level of personal experience. In this post, I am venturing way outside my comfort zone to a topic on which I have no personal experience…and very limited medical knowledge.

In my last post I talked about closed paths.  I shared a story of my horse, Knockout, searching for alternate paths home because he didn’t realize the opener and closer of paths was right there with him.  Knockout didn’t need to find an alternate path home.  He simply needed to wait on my timing and follow my direction.

I used that story as an analogy to show how we sometimes do the same thing with God. Sometimes, I try to help God out by searching alternate paths to my goals, when what I really need to do is remember the opener and closer of paths is right there with me.  I don’t need to search out alternate paths.  I simply need to follow His direction and wait on His timing.

In that post, I did not give any specific examples (either personal or biblical). The biblical example that came to mind was the story of Abraham and Sarah wanting a child…an heir.  They had gone out from the land of their people on a promise that God would give them numerous descendants and a vast land for their heritage.

Years passed without those promises coming to fruition. They remained childless nomads, wandering homeless in a land populated by foreigners.

So, they decided to help God out by finding an alternate path to their goal. First, Abraham made plans to leave everything to his servant, Eliezer, as his heir.  But God told him Eliezer would not be his heir and promised Abraham a son.

As more years passed with no child, Sarah gave Abraham her maid servant, Hagar, as a concubine…a slave wife…a surrogate mother of sorts. Hagar conceived and bore a son named Ishmael…which led to strife between Sarah and Hagar.

Eventually, the promised child was born to Sarah…long after menopause…long after she had given up hope of ever bearing a child.

And that vast land promised to Abraham and his heirs? Never in their lifetime did they ever own any land other than a plot purchased for use as a family cemetery.  Yet, God’s promises were fulfilled many years later when the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Israel, were led out of Egypt to conquer the promised land of Canaan.

You and I come into this story as well.

The fullness of God’s promises to Abraham and his seed was realized in Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ.  Through covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, you and I are invited to become heirs of the covenant God cut with Abraham.

God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah were much broader and deeper than they could have imagined. His plans for their lives were much fuller than their own limited vision.  While they were stressed over a child not being born soon enough, God was already working out the redemption of the human race through the faith of Abraham and Sarah.  Although their faith sometimes looks pretty fragile and limited from our perspective, God used it for His glory and to work His purposes through their lives.

This morning, I am reading a book titled, “The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules,” by Carolyn Custis James.  Thus far, it is a very well written book in which Carolyn James does an excellent job of lifting the veneer of theology through which we tend to view this familiar Bible story, to help us see the depth of human tragedy…the grievous loss and sorrow through which God works out His story in the lives of ordinary people.

This morning, I read these words, “Medical charts of barren women in the Bible bore this cryptic notation, ‘The LORD had closed her womb.’”

As the import of those words registered, my mind flashed to my previous post about God being the opener and closer of our paths, and the need to follow His direction and await His timing. Simultaneously, I was reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah…and the fact that their story of infertility was the beginning of a much broader and deeper purpose than they could have imagined.

I have never personally experienced infertility. I have wept with and prayed for friends who were experiencing this sorrow.  I have seen God perform mighty miracles.  I have watched as children born to couples on the verge of giving up have grown to adulthood as godly men and women.  I have witnessed bureaucratic red tape miraculously resolving for adoptions to go through.  And I have witnessed couples finding contentment in a life with no children of their own.

Every story is deeply personal…and every story is unique.

If you are facing infertility, my message for you, today, is simply that God knows. God knows your pain.  God knows your sorrow and frustration.  God knows your hopes.  God knows the deep desires of your heart…and God knows His plans for bringing the fulfillment of those desires to fruition in your life.

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

God knows…

Closed Paths

Knockout greets our grandsons

In my previous blog post, I wrote about working with Knockout’s issue of continually trying to turn around and go home. To address this issue, I let him turn around but put him to working trotting circles at the end of the driveway.

I’m pleased to report this approach seems to have been effective and we have since enjoyed several relaxed rides together on a loose rein with light prompts.

In this post, though, I want to share the story of our first ride after my previous post. Sometimes these animals are truly hilarious, and this was one of those times.

We started out of the driveway, turning right down the gravel road. As we passed the mailbox, Knockout dodged left and I let him turn back toward the driveway, where I pushed him into a trot circling the same pattern as before.

As before, each time we hit the short stretch heading south down the road, I dropped the reins and looked down the road, offering Knockout the good deal of a relaxed ride. And each time he chose, instead, to turn right up the drive, initiating another loop around the small circle.

Unlike the previous ride, Knockout was pretty quick to realize the futility of turning up the driveway. After about five minutes of circling he took me up on the good deal of going straight down the gravel road.

He surprised me, though, by holding a fast trot and crowding the right side of the road. He was literally trotting down the ditch, over small mounds of gravel and pine straw, brushing tree limbs along the way.  I thought he would tire of that pretty quick, but I wound up asking him to move to the left a little.  He complied with a left side-pass, but continued to focus intently on the right side of the road.

When he suddenly turned right I went with him, expecting yet another turn back to the driveway. Instead, he crossed the ditch to stand quietly at a gap gate, looking out into our back pasture.  We sat there for a few minutes while I asked if he liked the view.  Then I backed him across the ditch and we continued our ride.

When our road intersected another gravel road, Knockout pulled right and I decided to let him go. He promptly tried to turn another right into our neighbor’s pasture.  When I blocked his turn, he continued trotting up the road.  At the other end of our neighbor’s pasture, he tried again to turn into another open gate, which I blocked.  Further on, he tried to turn right up a path through a pine thicket leading to the back corner of our pasture…again I blocked him.

After about two miles I turned him around to head home…and he acted reluctant. After a few steps he tried to turn around again, which made me laugh.  “Really?  After all these weeks of you trying to turn around and head home, now you’re acting reluctant to go home?”

As we continued home, the closer we got the slower Knockout walked. Usually, he’s super light heading home.  This ride he got slower and slower.  The last stretch before our driveway, I had to push him just to keep moving.

When we finally got to our driveway, Knockout walked on the far side of the road, looking straight ahead. When I prompted him to turn, he very gingerly turned and walked very precisely up the center of the driveway like he was nervous about making a wrong move.

I literally laughed out loud as I finally realized what he had been thinking that whole ride.

From the time we started up the road, Knockout’s focus had been on finding an alternate route home. Realizing the driveway was somehow blocked to prevent passage, he was diligently seeking another way home.  He had adopted the position of, “Don’t worry, Joe.  I’ll get us home.  I know there’s another way to get there.  Just stick with me and I’ll find another route.”

When he stopped at the first pasture gate, it was in hope I would open the gate for him to pass. Then all those other attempted right turns were an effort to find another way home.  When I turned to go back, he was reluctant to give up his search, because he had already confirmed the driveway was closed.

I give Knockout full credit for logical conclusions based on his understanding. After persistently trying to go up the driveway and failing, he decided the appropriate action was to find another route…and set out to do exactly that.

He failed to understand the driveway was only closed because I intentionally blocked it…and the driveway would be open as soon as I chose to allow it. Getting home was not an issue of needing to find the right path.  Rather it was an issue of needing to wait on my timing.

Knockout made his plans failing to recognize that the opener and closer of paths was right there with him the whole time.

How often have I been right there in Knockout’s shoes?

How many times have I persistently tried to do what I thought was the best thing, just to fail over and over? How many times have I concluded that door was closed and set out to find another path to achieve my goal?  And how many of those times was God simply waiting on me to stop trying so He could direct my path in His timing?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Lord, thank you for your patient good humor as I try to show you where we should go.   Thank you for continuing to teach me to wait on you and follow your direction.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Transformation

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

I’ve been riding Knockout for about a year now. When we first started, Knockout was an energetic, spooky, young, green-broke horse who seemed to always be looking for an excuse to bolt.

We’ve come a long way across the past year!

Knockout is now much more confident and relaxed under saddle. Just in the last three months I’ve begun viewing Knockout as becoming a pretty solid horse.

Across the last month, I’ve felt the balance start to tip the other direction. Knockout has gone from generally being a little on the spooky end of the scale to generally being a little on the lazy end of the scale.  While going down the road at a fast trot, he is more likely to want to slow to a walk than to want to pick up to a lope.

I feel I have really gained his trust to the point he has begun to feel comfortable expressing his preferences. Considering where we started, this is a welcome phase to work through!

One preference that has surfaced is a preference to stay home rather than going out for a ride down the road. I can’t say I blame him much.  Eating grass in the pasture with the other horses is bound to seem a more enjoyable pastime than carrying me down the road.

It has become an issue, though, because of his persistence. Initially, he would avoid starting down the road, but once started he would do fine.  Then he got to where he would keep trying longer to turn around.  So, for maybe the first quarter mile he would keep looking for an excuse to turn back, before finally settling into the ride.

We would start straight down the road, then Knockout would start to turn right as though hoping I would let him turn around and head home. When I first felt him start to step right, I would interfere with a light touch of either rein or leg to let him know he was to keep going straight.  But Knockout would push through the light cue persistently trying to turn.  So, I would come in with a heavier cue to let him know, “No, I really meant what I said!  Keep going straight.”  Knockout would then respond to the heavier cue with an exaggerated response of going too far left…which would require my correction from the left side…to which he would over-respond back to the right.  So, for the first quarter mile or so we sort of zig-zagged down the road until Knockout finally settled into the ride and responded well to light cues.

That was a little annoying, but not terrible. I figured it was just a phase that would work itself out with a few more rides.  Except it didn’t…in fact it got worse.  Gradually, across a few weeks, that quarter mile of reluctance turned into a half mile…then a mile…then two miles.  It got to the point we were riding further and further from home just because I was determined not to turn around until after he had relaxed into the ride.  I didn’t want Knockout to get the idea that his persistence had paid off.

I finally decided it was time to try a different approach.

Since Knockout seemed determined to head for home, I decided to just let him go…but to make sure it was more work than going on a ride.

Our next ride, as we left the driveway to start up the road, Knockout dodged left and I just went with him. I gave him his head and let him start back for the driveway while pushing him up into a fast trot.  But I never let him go past the gate at the end of the drive.  I just turned him and put him into trotting circles at the end of the driveway.

Initially, we just trotted random circles and figure-eights. Then we settled into an oblong loop with a long side running along the road in the direction I wanted to go.  While in the straight stretch, I dropped all pressure, put plenty of slack in the reins, and looked down the road.  When Knockout turned right to start up the drive, I let him go but came in asking for a fast trot and turning him back into the oblong circle again.

So, once within each loop I offered Knockout the good deal of going on a nice relaxed ride up the road. When he chose to turn for the drive, I put him to back to work trotting circles.

We did that for a while…a long while…like over an hour. I didn’t make it any more difficult, but I also didn’t let it become any easier.  When he tried to shorten the loop by cutting off a corner, I didn’t let him.  When he got sloppy following prompts around the circle, we worked on smooth turns and collected cadence.  I adopted the attitude of, “Hey, I’ve got all day.  We can either go for a ride down the road or we can stay right here trotting circles and working on cadence.  It doesn’t matter to me.  We’ll do whichever you want.”

Finally, Knockout decided to take the good deal and go straight under a loose rein! For about four paces…then he turned back.  So, we fast trotted back to the end of the drive and went right back to trotting circles again.  And we repeated that scenario a few times…

In the end, Knockout decided maybe going for a ride was a pretty good idea after all, and we finished with about a two-mile ride on a loose rein at a relaxed walk on light cues. It was great!  😊

So, why did I change tactics? What caused me to switch from being persistent in my prompts to letting Knockout choose where to go?  That’s a fairly major change of strategy!

Two things, really. Primarily, I changed because my initial approach was no longer working.  It didn’t make sense to keep trying the same approach when that approach wasn’t yielding the desired results.

Secondly, I changed because I realized Knockout was becoming increasingly resentful of our rides. His persistence in trying to turn back was being met by my persistence in directing forward.  So, the rides were becoming a huge contest of wills with me persistently preventing Knockout from doing what he wanted.

I had to reassess my approach because that was not my goal. My goal is not to keep Knockout from doing what he wants.  No, my goal for Knockout goes much deeper.

My goal is to transform Knockout’s thinking so much that what he wants most is to be with me following my cues.

I don’t want to subvert Knockout’s will to obey mine. Rather, I want to transform his will to follow mine.  I want Knockout’s greatest confidence to be in me.  I want his greatest comfort to be abiding in that quiet rest beneath my saddle and between my legs awaiting my next cue.

I don't want to subvert my horse's will to obey mine. Rather, I want to transform his will to follow mine. Click To Tweet

Given a free choice between following my light cue or doing anything else, I want Knockout’s preference to become following my prompt.

Isn’t that similar to how the Bible describes God’s goals for us?

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

Notice how these two passages emphasize the need to present ourselves ready for service…prepared to cooperate with His transforming work in our lives. Also notice the emphasis on our liberty in Christ…superimposed with our being transformed to “prove what the will of God is.”

Much like my goal for Knockout, God’s goal for me is not to subvert my will to obey Him. Rather, His goal for me is to transform my will to follow Him.

God's will for me is not to subvert my will to obey Him. Rather, it is to transform my will to follow Him. Click To Tweet

This is why legalistic religion focused on finding and following ‘biblical’ rules and exceptions can never attain righteousness before God. God’s goal isn’t about us knowing and following rules…it is about our being transformed through spending time with Him.

Just as Knockout does not know from one ride to the next where I may want him to go or what I may ask him to do, in the same way we do not know from one life circumstance to the next where God may lead us or what He may ask us to do.

I don’t hand Knockout a road map and say “Here follow this…over the same route…every ride.” Rather, I go with Knockout and direct each step of his path to go where I want him to go and do what I want him to do on that particular ride.  My goal for Knockout isn’t to get him from point A to point B by a specific route.  Rather it is to have a relationship with him that is characterized by his being so in tune with me that he simply goes wherever I ask.  My focus with Knockout’s training is on developing the relationship such that responding to my prompts is not a burdensome thing but a natural overflow of his confidence in me as his leader.

In much the same way, God’s goals for me focus on developing our relationship such that I can hear His voice and respond to His prompts as a natural overflow of my confidence in Him.

Of course, God’s goals for me go much deeper than my goals for Knockout. I am seeking to transform Knockout’s mind, whereas God has promised to transform my heart, through the power of The Holy Spirit, to be conformed to the image of Christ.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

Knowing this, I can face the unknowns of the future, not with fear and trepidation, but rather with joyful anticipation, fully confident of His loving care for me and His promise to transform me.

Knowing this, I should not be focused on trying to define and defend all the rules and exceptions…nor on adding more rules on top of rules to avoid even “the appearance of evil.”  Rather, I should be focused on spending time with God, learning to hear His voice and respond.

Your thoughts?

Softness

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Friday evening I spent a little time working with Archie, our 2-year-old stud colt.

I was asking Archie to yield to tail pressure. If I tugged his tail to the left, I wanted him to step his hindquarters left.  If I tugged his tail to the right, I wanted him to step right.  It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot going on in this learning exercise.

We had to overcome a horse’s natural instinct to escape entrapment. Natural instinct tells a horse when his tail is tugged left he should move away by stepping right…the opposite of what I was asking.

We had to develop understanding. When I first started tugging on Archie’s tail, he had absolutely no idea what I wanted him to do.  The cue had no meaning to him, so he simply followed his instincts.

We also had to develop discernment. Archie had to learn to distinguish between a tug to the left versus a tug to the right, and the different response expected for each.

So we started working on the left side. I tugged left and Archie stepped right.  As he moved away from me, I increased the pressure.  He took another step right.  I moved with him holding the pressure as he took a couple more steps to the right.  Then he tried moving forward.  I stayed with him, holding pressure until he ran out of room to move forward.  Finally, he took just a little half step to the left and I instantly let go of his tail.

Then we repeated the process over and over as Archie learned to understand a tug to the left meant I wanted a step to the left.

Once we had the left side working halfway decent we started working on the right side. His resistance on the right side was initially much worse than on the left side.  He had just learned that a tail tug meant step left and he was determined to do what he had just learned.  He had no understanding that a tug to the right was a different cue from a tug to the left.  So we practiced the right side until he understood the expectation then went back to the left side…which was now confused by work on the right side.

With patience and consistency we got it sorted out. Archie learned to distinguish between a left tug and a right tug as well as the expected response to each.

At one point in our training session, I would lift his tail while standing on his right, and he would instantly shift his weight left, bracing against the tug he knew was coming. I would give a light tug and he would resist.  I would hold the pressure with a soft firmness and after a few seconds he would relax and step right.

We practiced that a few more times.

Then we finally reached a point where I lifted his tail while standing on his right, and he shifted his weight to the right, ready to respond to the tug he knew was coming. I softly tugged and he just gave to the cue by stepping over…smooth…soft…light…fluid.

There it is! There’s that softness Ray Hunt (and other great horsemen) wrote about!

When we started, it felt like trying to drag a rope tied to a 500 lb weight! Actually…that’s exactly what it was…dragging a 500 lb horse around by the tail.

By the time we finished, it was no more effort than dragging a newspaper across a smooth counter.

Archie was soft to my feel. He was light.  He anticipated my ask by preparing to respond rather than by preparing to resist.

That’s exactly what we’re working toward…a soft response to a soft ask…

But to get there required a lot of firmness…a lot of consistent persistence…a lot of understanding…a lot of trust…and a lot of respect.

Contemplating that softness this morning, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:8)

Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34)

This is what it means to be soft-hearted…that when I feel the Holy Spirit’s prompt I relax into His will ready to respond as soon as I understand His ask.

The prophet Zechariah provides a contrast showing what it means to be hard-hearted…to respond to God’s prompt by bracing to resist His will:

They made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 7:12)

And Jeremiah prophesied the coming of the New Covenant which was enacted by Jesus Christ. Rather than laws carved in stone rigidly followed out of fear, the Holy Spirit teaches us softness…a soft response to a soft ask:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

What a gentle master! He calls us to a relationship of willing response based on trust and respect as we learn to rely on His goodness and faithfulness.

Early in that training session, we had to work past Archie’s confusion over different prompts.  It took him a little while to discern the difference between a tug to the left and a tug to the right, as well as the proper response to each.  He knew the tug meant something, but his confusion and natural instincts interfered with clear communication.  He stepped wrong as often as right, and always with a good deal of resistance…of first bracing against the tug before eventually giving to it.

I think a lot of Christians reside mostly in that place…sort of stuck early in the training.  They haven’t figured out the soft cues and soft responses of the New Covenant.  They see rigid laws to be fearfully and woodenly obeyed.  Their confusion and natural instincts interfere with clear communication, so they miss the nuances of the Holy Spirit’s prompts.  Seeing a fellow believer being tugged left they scream, “Step right!  Step right!  A tail tug always means step right!”

Blind guides…misapplying rigid laws…while completely missing the Holy Spirit’s soft prompts…

Lord, please continue to be patient with us!  Teach us to respond to you, not out of fear in response to laws carved in stone, but out of trust and respect as we learn to respond softly and fluidly to your soft prompts.

Unplanned Blessings

Last week we learned Heritage Academy, a Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland, is refusing to allow graduating senior Maddi Runkles to walk in their commencement ceremony because she is pregnant and unwed.

Washington Post (May 24, 2017) reports, “…Heritage Academy in Hagerstown says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, ‘not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. … The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.’”

The referenced article reports that when the school was first informed of her pregnancy, in February, “Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.” On appeal, they decided she could remain in school, but could not walk with her class in commencement ceremonies.  I expect they see themselves as being very gracious and understanding in having made this concession.

The school’s position is wrong in so many ways, I find it difficult knowing where to start. It’s not just a wrong course of action, it is an action chosen based on a very unchristlike paradigm…a legalistic paradigm all too common among Christian churches.

Let’s start with the principal’s statement that Maddi is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral.” What a load of malarkey!  If principal Hobbs believes his own statement, he is the only person blind enough to be fooled by it.  Hobbs’ statement is both dishonest and disingenuous.

If Maddi were not pregnant the school would never have even learned of her sexual activity and there would have been no disciplinary action.

Let’s imagine for a moment a completely different scenario. Let’s imagine a boy from Maddi’s graduating class had privately approached the principal and confessed in confidence that he had sexual intercourse with an 18-year-old girl who was out of high school and had never attended Heritage Academy.  No pregnancy, STD or other consequence had occurred as a result of the unwed sexual intercourse, but he was very sorry for his misconduct, begged forgiveness, and prayed he would have the strength to resist future temptations.

What action might we expect the principal to take in such a scenario? Would he have threatened to kick the young man out of school?  Would he have forbidden him to walk in commencement ceremonies?  Not likely!

I expect in such a scenario, no official school disciplinary action would have been taken against the penitent young man. In fact, I expect the principal would have had some very encouraging words for the young man.  He likely would have used the boy as an anonymous example of godly behavior at the next school assembly…an example to be followed by any other students with unconfessed sin.

So, yes, make no mistake about it, Maddi Runkles was singled out for ostracizing punishment, not because of her sexual activity, but because of her pregnancy.

Moreover, the nature of the punishment chosen clearly indicates the school was much more concerned about their own embarrassment than about what was best for Maddi. The ostracization was not inspired by a need to ensure Maddi understood the gravity of her mistake…I don’t believe anyone doubts Maddi’s pregnancy more than suffices to ensure she understands sexual intercourse is serious business that should not be approached casually.  Nor was Maddi’s punishment inspired by a perceived need to ensure other students understand the gravity of sexual intercourse…in fact Maddi’s pregnancy in itself provides a compelling example of the serious nature of sexual intercourse.

To the objective observer, it is very clear Principal Hobbs’ decision to keep Maddi out of the school commencement program is motivated by a sense of embarrassment in regard to the school’s reputation. This decision is not about what’s best for Maddi nor what is best for the rest of the student body.  It is about the school’s reputation…about the potential embarrassment of having an unwed pregnant student participating in the graduation ceremony.

And Hobbs’ sense of embarrassment is, itself, based on a false paradigm…a belief that an unwed pregnancy is cause for shame…an undesirable consequence of sinful behavior.

The Bible provides a drastically different perspective:

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,

The fruit of the womb is a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,

So are the children of one’s youth.

How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;

They will not be ashamed

When they speak with their enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-50)

Children are a gift of the Lord…a blessing…a reward…not a source of shame.

Pregnancy is not a sin nor should it be a source of shame. Children are a blessing from the Lord.  Therefore, pregnancy is a blessing from the Lord.

If unwed pregnancy were a sin, Jesus would have been conceived in sin. Let’s be very clear on this point.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, God incarnate, Immanuel, God with us, our Redeemer and Deliverer, was conceived and born of an unwed mother.

Obviously, God considers unwed pregnancy to be neither a cause of shame nor a state of uncleanness, since he chose it as the means of bringing Christ into our world.

We all understand the science of fertility. We understand that in most cases there is a cause and effect relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy.  Certainly, not every occurrence of sexual intercourse results in a pregnancy.  Nor is every pregnancy the result of sexual intercourse…the Christian faith celebrates at least one notable exception.  But, yes, in the vast majority of cases pregnancy is preceded by sexual intercourse.  So, it is understandable for people to view an unwed pregnancy as substantive evidence of unwed sexual intercourse.  Fine…in most cases the pregnant woman is unlikely to deny sexual intercourse took place.  That intercourse may or may not have involved sin on her part…date rape is all too common in our society.  So, in many cases a woman may be shamed for something beyond her control that did not involve any sinful behavior on her part.

But…even more important…even in the instances where the unborn child was conceived through unwed consensual sexual intercourse…it would be wrong to view the pregnancy as an undesirable consequence of sin.

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,

The fruit of the womb is a reward.

Children are always a gift of the Lord…always a blessing. In the biblical context, it is not at all unusual for God to bring great blessing out of very imperfect circumstances.  In fact, the biblical narrative is filled with examples of God bringing great blessing out of very imperfect circumstances.

A pregnancy in which the mother wants the child and plans to carry the child full term should always be treated as cause for celebration! That child is a gift of the Lord!  No exceptions.

If any readers of this post are pregnant with a child conceived out of wedlock, be encouraged in knowing your child is a gift of the Lord. Any readers who are parents or grandparents of a child conceived out of wedlock, be encouraged that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was also conceived out of wedlock.  The single greatest blessing of the Christian faith was a child conceived out of wedlock…and God says all children are a gift from Him…a reward…a cause to not be ashamed.

Maddi Runkles, I don’t expect you’re likely to read this post. But if you do, I want you to know I’m proud of you and rejoice with you in this wonderful gift the Lord has bestowed on you!

Blessings to you and your family!