The last few months, Knockout (my 7-yo AQHA quarter horse gelding) and I have been spending a lot of time checking cows and checking fence. Most weekday evenings we do a quick check before dark.  Most weekend mornings we do a more relaxed and thorough check, spending a little more time getting acquainted with each cow.

It would sound a lot cooler if I said we’ve been working cows…but that might be a bit misleading.  We’re not out there roping, branding, or doctoring cows.  In general, we’re not even moving cows…though we have started playing with gathering and pushing a little bit just to get a feel for it.  We even pushed a few calves back into the pasture after they got out, the other day.  Most of the time, we just ride around making sure all the cows look healthy and sound, read ear tag numbers to check off my list, and count the calves to make sure everyone is accounted for.  Then we ride the fence to make sure it’s in good repair…and ride by the electric fence chargers to make sure they’re clicking and flashing like they’re supposed to be.

It’s pretty simple stuff. I suspect this is the sort of stuff that once made up the lifestyle of a historical cow-boy.  Before the dangerous Texas cattle drives through Indian Territory added the sense of adventure, and before the dime novels romanticized the western cowboy lifestyle, a cow-boy was simply a boy who took care of the cows…much like a shepherd takes care of sheep.

That’s what Knockout and I have been doing the last few months. We check cows.

I’ve been amazed at how checking cows has changed the dynamic of our rides. We used to ride the same pastures and woods trails we’re riding now.  Previously, though, the focus was on us and our teamwork.

Sure, I enjoyed the beauty of nature as we went, and we would sometimes stop to watch the calves play. However, my main focus was on Knockout.  Was Knockout responding promptly to my cues?  Was Knockout keeping his attention on me?  Was Knockout responsive to my body language?  Was Knockout tense or was he relaxed as we rode?  Was Knockout compliant or resistant?  Was Knockout traveling in straight lines at constant rates of speed?

Then there was also a lot of focus on myself. Were my hands light on the reins?  Did I have plenty of slack in the reins?  Was I practicing good rein management?  Were my cues light?  Was my timing good?  Was I carrying an independent seat?  Was I dropping all pressure when headed in the desired direction?  Was my body positioned facing the direction I wanted to go and eyes focused on a distant goal point?

Similarly, Knockout’s main focus was on me and my cues…except when he was focused on where he wanted to go…like back home. Or when he was focused on what he could startle at…like my helmet brushing a branch as we rode under it.  When these things happened, my focus became making sure Knockout’s focus returned to me.

Now, none of these are bad things. For the stage we were at, they were necessary areas of focus.  Furthermore, they have never stopped being necessary.  I still pay attention to these things…but now they’re more in the background…not subconscious but not at the forefront of my focus, either.

Now my primary focus is on the cows and fencing. Where is the herd?  Is the herd together or scattered?  What is my best approach to make sure I check each cow?  What is my best route thru the herd as I check ear tags?  Which ear tags can I check off from a distance just by knowing the markings of individual cows?  What is my best approach to each cow, to get a good look at her ear tag without spooking her into turning away from me or walking off?  Are any cows hidden behind that wall of brush near the back fence line?  Are any cows lying down in the shade of the woods?  Why am I coming up one cow short in my count?  Where is the missing cow hidden…or did I just overlook her as I rode through the herd?

Likewise while checking fence, I’m focused on seeing a thin wire. Is it tight or sagging?  If it is sagging, where’s the break?  Is the wire on each post insulator?  If not, I need to dismount to put the wire back in place at each fence post.  Is anything shorting the fence out?  Does that fallen branch need to be moved?  Why isn’t the electric fence charger ticking?  Is the battery connection loose?  When did we last charge the battery?

Now, behind all that, I’m still riding. I’m still doing rein management and hopefully using appropriate pressure with good timing.  But that is no longer in the forefront of my thoughts.

And you know what? As my focus has changed, Knockout’s focus has begun to change, too.  He’s no longer looking for a chance to go back home.  We’re riding through rougher terrain with more high brush and low branches than we ever did before, yet Knockout rarely startles at anything.  Like myself, Knockout is focused on the cows.  As I leave one cow and turn to head toward another, Knockout is already looking to see which cow we’re approaching next.  As we approach a cow, Knockout is eagerly waiting to see if we’re going to direct the cow somewhere or just read an ear tag and ride on.

Knockout loves directing cows! We’re not very good at it, yet, but he sure loves doing it.

As we work together, Knockout and I are both learning to plan approach angles and speed. We’re learning to adjust our speed to intercept a moving cow without spooking her.  When pushing a cow, we’re learning to be aware of speed, flight zone, and balance point.  We’re learning to trust each other to do our jobs even as we learn together and fill in for each other.

While checking fence, Knockout has begun to keep one eye on the wire just as I am. He knows to stay near the fence line without getting too close.  He is beginning to learn when something is wrong with the fence wire we are going to stop for me to dismount and correct the issue.  And he has learned to stand patiently ground-tied while I fix the fence.

I’ve also noticed I have less tendency to micromanage than before. When we’re tracking a cow, I’m likely to just let Knockout go, confident he knows what to do.  When we’re checking fence, if I can see Knockout is paying attention to tracking beside the fence, I’m likely to just let him go, confident he knows to follow the wire.  When fixing fence, I just drop the reins on the ground and go about my business, trusting Knockout to stay put until I come back.  When crossing a creek, I’m likely to let him move over a couple of steps if he chooses…after all he’s the one who has to maintain his footing as we cross.

Tending cows is becoming a common goal we both work on together. Rather than focusing on our teamwork, we are beginning to work together as a team for a common purpose.  Rather than practicing transitions, we frequently transition speed and gait as part of the job.  Rather than practicing turns and laterals, we turn and move as needed to get the job done.

It’s sort of like the difference between a football practice and a football game. Yes, the practice is important and necessary, but the game is where the team really comes together toward a common goal.

Working together on necessary tasks has given our rides a sense of purpose. Knockout and I have both embraced that purpose, resulting in a closer sense of partnership.  We don’t work against each other as much, because we’re busy working together toward a common goal.

Isn’t that what God does with us?

When Jesus discipled the twelve apostles, they didn’t just sit around soaking up Jesus’ teaching and enjoying the fellowship. Jesus sent them out to minister to others.  He gave them very explicit instructions on how they were to conduct themselves, and told them:

“And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8)

Jesus didn’t just minister to the disciples. Rather He asked them to join Him in ministry.  He entrusted them with an important job.  Jesus gave clear and explicit directions without micromanaging.  He called the apostles to a mission with purpose.

Jesus calls us to the same purposeful mission:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Notice we are not alone in this mission. Jesus is with us.  We’re working together toward a common goal.

At His last supper with the disciples, Jesus gave them further instructions:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

This is our mission, our purposeful common goal. Go make disciples and love one another.

This is how Christ draws us into closer relationship with Him…by inviting us to join Him in working toward these common goals.

Are you working with Christ to accomplish these necessary tasks?

Lessons from the Berry Patch: Lesson 3 ~ Always Pursue the Big Juicy Black Berry in the Middle of the Patch

Hand victoriously clutching gold medal

Go for the Gold!

Any time you pick berries, you will always see a handful of extra-large, juicy ripe berries just out of reach in the middle of the patch.  They hang there teasing you as you search the perimeter for berries that are easier to reach, but probably smaller and less scrumptious looking.

You want to reach those big juicy black berries in the middle, but it appears impossible.  The vines are thick, forming a seemingly impenetrable wall of thorns.  There’s
just no way to reach them, you tell yourself.  You would like to pick them, but with no way to access them, you’ll just have to focus on picking what berries you can reach near the edges of the patch.

My advice, at this stage, is to believe that the seemingly impossible is possible.  Remember those boots, jeans, and long sleeves you put on before heading to the berry patch this morning? This was the reason for them.  Raise your left foot high, press it against the nearest vines, and crush them underfoot as you wade on into the thick of the thorny vines.

Then stay put for a while.  Yes, you’ve only taken one step, so far, and you have several more to go.  That’s okay.  See, you want to make sure you’re not crushing perfectly good berries underfoot as you proceed toward your goal.

Stop and look around you.  You are now inside the berry patch.  You have gained a new perspective of the situation.  Berries that were previously completely concealed from sight are now visible and within reach.  Pick every ripe berry that you can reach before taking another step.

When no more ripe berries can be reached, then return to your earlier goal of pursuing those delectable delights hanging high in the center of the patch.  Raising your foot high, again, take another vine-crushing step toward the middle.  Then pause, again.

Take time to search for, and pick, other berries as you gradually make your way to the middle.  Each step you take toward the middle of the patch will require either pushing past thorny vines, or pushing vines down to walk over them.  Inevitably, that process
reveals, with each step, new ripe blackberries that you could not previously see.  Take the time to look for and pick all of those berries revealed as you make your way toward your goal of those giant luscious berries out in the very middle.

Eventually, you’ll come within arms-reach of those big, luscious, ripe berries hanging high in the middle.  So, go ahead and make the reach to pick them.  Stretch out, laying
yourself over the thorns, as you fully extend your reach, grasping those huge, luscious, ripe blackberries!

Did they fall apart as you touched them?  Yes, that’s to be expected.  They were  beautiful, but over-ripe from over-exposure to sunlight.

Do you feel a little disappointed at finding the goal you so relentlessly pursued, with tenacious single-minded focus through an array of thorny obstacles has turned out to be of little value?  Of course you do!  It’s a bit anticlimactic, to say the least.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering why I encouraged you to pursue that goal with such enthusiasm.  I, as an experienced berry picker, knew the big berries in the middle were likely over-ripe.  So, why did I encourage you to pursue that goal?  Why didn’t I tell you, up-front, that they were probably over-ripe, and save you all that trouble?

It may surprise you to know that I, an experienced berry picker, make it a rule to always pursue the big ripe berries in the middle of the patch.  Yes, I know they are probably over-ripe, but I pursue them anyway.  Why?  Well, for one thing, sometimes they’re not over-ripe.  Sometimes, they’re perfect!

But there is an even better reason for the pursuit of such a worthy goal.  Take a look in your berry bucket.  See how many berries you’ve collected?  Do you see how many more berries you have now than when you were hovering around the perimeter of the patch?  Those berries you picked up along the way, as you worked toward your goal…those berries are the real reward for your efforts!

Life Application

The true benefit of pursuing a goal often has more to do with what we see, experience, and learn along the way than with attaining the goal itself.  It’s not the diploma, but the education, the knowledge, the relationships built, and the benefit of learning to appreciate hard work.

If God gives you a heart for a given ministry, wade on in and give it all you’ve got!

Sure, it may turn out to be less successful than you had hoped or envisioned.
That’s okay!  If you take the time to enjoy the many little treasures along the way, you will be richly blessed, as well as a blessing to others, regardless of the final outcome.

And look at the company you’ll be keeping!

Abraham, to whom God promised a vast estate as an inheritance for his multitude of descendants, never owned any land beyond what he purchased as a family cemetery.
But look at the rich blessings he gained along the way, and the legacy he left behind!  That legacy led directly to the fulfillment of messianic prophecy with the birth of Jesus Christ, Abraham’s descendant.

Moses, who spent 40 years working toward entering the promised land, and was only able to see it from afar before his death.  But look at the blessings along the way.  He led God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt, and taught them to follow God.  Moses spoke with God face-to-face, and saw God carve His commandments in tablets of stone!

What a blessing!  What a legacy!  For someone who relentlessly pursued a life goal that was never realized in his life-time, Moses sure did experience a lot of blessing and a lot of achievements along the way.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul opens the letter with a picture of our ultimate goal, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the
foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.  In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:3-6).

What a mouthful!  What a promise!  As we read these words of promise, we have to
stop every few lines to digest it.  The promises are so rich that we cannot absorb them in full sentences!

Paul is showing us both the goal and God’s promise of accomplishing that goal in our lives.  He wants us to have a clear vision of the goal and a deep desire to pursue the goal with unrelenting tenacity.

Then, in the following chapters, Paul gets into the nitty-gritty details of what it means to walk in godliness.  These are thorny issues that have to be dealt with.  There is going to be some pain, and it will require a lot of effort.

We’re talking about changing ourselves…becoming different people with different hearts.  Of course God does the changing, because we can’t.  However, God does not wave a magic wand to change our hearts.  Rather, he works through our own life experiences to accomplish His will and purpose in conforming our hearts to His image.

Then, in the final chapter, Paul reveals the armor of God, explains the purpose of each component, and advises its constant use.

The opening chapter sets the goal (berries in the middle of the patch) of fulfilling the destiny God established for us before the foundations of the world. The middle chapters explain the obstacles (seemingly impenetrable wall of thorns) between where we are now and the attainment of that goal.  The closing chapter tells how to prepare for overcoming those obstacles (proper attire).

Will we see the complete fulfillment of that final goal?  Yes, of a certainty, we will see it…but probably not in this lifetime.  Which means it is easy to get discouraged, as though the fulfillment of the goal is always just out of reach.

The important thing, now, is to take one step at a time, stopping at each step to enjoy God’s blessings and gain a new perspective, before taking another step, always in relentless pursuit of the final goal.  It is through those changes in perspective, those blessings along the way, those lessons learned in each step, that God is accomplishing His will in our lives.

Always pursue what goals God has placed in your heart.  Always take the time, with each step, to stop and learn from the new perspective gained.  Remember that those thorny issues standing between you and your goal are more than just obstacles to be overcome…they are also important steps in the fulfillment of your ultimate goal.

Don’t get discouraged when goals seem not to reach the expected fulfillment…check your bucket…it is now fuller than when you started!

(please add your comments to this post):

What goals have you pursued that led to disappointing results?  What did you learn along the way?  What relationships were built during the process?  Are you glad, today, that you made the effort to pursue the goal, even though the outcome was not what you hoped or envisioned?

What godly goal has been set before you, today?  Are you whole-heartedly pursuing it?  If not, why not?  Is fear of thorns holding you back, or fear of disappointment upon attaining the goal?

What about the ultimate goal of being conformed to the image of Christ?  Are you still whole-heartedly pursuing that goal?  What discouragements have you faced along the way?  How has God used those disappointments to further mold your heart to conformance with His image?