The day my husband Ken bought me a horse has to be one of my all-time best days.
I had been taking riding lessons on a chestnut mare named Tess at a little stable in South Carolina. The trainer had mentioned Tess was for sale, but I never allowed myself to think about buying her. How could we afford her, along with stable costs (we lived in town), farrier and vet bills, not to mention saddles, bits, bridles, and all the rest of the tack I borrowed each time I rode? But everyday I fell more in love with this beautiful mare. I learned the basics of caring for her as well as how to walk, trot, and canter, and I pretended she was mine.
Then one afternoon, Ken came home from work and said, "Come take a drive with me."
"What's up?" I asked, when we arrived at the barn.
"We're buying a horse today," he said, grabbing my hand and pulling me toward Tess's stall.
I couldn't breathe. And then, I couldn't see through a blur of tears. I stumbled into Tess's stall, threw my arms around her neck and sobbed. Ken stood in the doorway grinning, waiting for me to finally erupt with the laughter of pure joy.
Later that night, I fell asleep with fantasies of the equestrian life galloping through my dreams. I imagined myself riding through fields, jumping Tess over colorful fences, cantering through forests to the accompaniment of baying hounds and squeaking leather.
I never imagined what it would take to make those dreams come true.
Life is often like that, isn't it? We harbor our dreams, sometimes for years, savoring them, but seldom do we really understand what it will take to make them a reality.
When Ken gave me the gift of a horse, I had no idea what I would have to do to become the kind of rider I dreamed of being. I didn't know what it would take to become proficient enough to ride my horse over a three-foot obstacle, land safely, turn and canter toward an oxer and complete an entire course without taking a fence out of order or pulling a rail--or, worse, breaking my neck.
As weeks of riding passed, and lessons piled upon lessons, reality hit me in the chest like a flailing hoof. This riding thing, the whole equestrian thing, the way I wanted to do it, was a full-time endeavor. It was not something I was going to be able to just "pick up."
I yearned to know God, to experience His power and presence more fully, yet this kind of relationship eluded me.
I noticed that the good riders at the stable where I rode took lessons all the time. They signed up for clinics with world-class trainers. They arrived at the barn early every morning, worked their horses, then studied videos and watched other classes to learn more. They attended horse shows where they competed and others where they just observed. They read books about riding; they studied their horse's "way of going"-I didn't know a horse had a "way of going".
I never became the rider I wanted to be. Over time, the demands of family and the limits of budget loomed as more indomitable obstacles than the colorful fences and log jumps that stood in the hunt field. But as I walked away, I took with me some of the most valuable lessons I would ever learn.
The equestrian life I dabbled in for a few years became for me a metaphor of my Christian life.
The Big Five
For many years, I thought that an active, Bible-informed Christian life consisted of the practice of certain daily habits. Every discipleship class I ever attended emphasized the same ones--always five; always the same five.
I didn't confuse the discipleship experience with the salvation experience-I knew the Bible well enough to know the difference. I understood that Jesus' death paid the debt of my sin that I could never pay. I knew it was His overwhelming act of grace and mercy that secured my place in heaven and made me a child of God through faith. But discipleship often confused me.
My faith was fragile--the slightest disturbance in my world could send me tumbling into a field of doubts and uncertainties about God's goodness. I didn't have the kind of intimacy with God that my discipleship classes promised. I yearned to know God, to experience His power and presence more fully, yet this kind of relationship eluded me. God seemed distant, strange. I knew His Word, His promises, but for all my knowledge, it seemed I didn't know God.
I practiced some spiritual disciplines-the five most commonly recognized ones--no one would argue that these are basic building blocks for a disciple's life. But I knew I was missing something. Could it be there were vast treasures of grace that God wanted to deposit in me, if I could only learn to widen my heart? But how? The question haunted me.
Dry, stale, thirsty for God, I began praying that He would show me how to open my heart. I prayed that He would teach me how to move into deeper levels of intimacy with Him. I prayed that I would learn how to know God, really know Him.
I was tired of living a limp, weak spiritual life. I was tired of saying I loved God, when the truth was, I hardly knew Him, apart from the facts I read about Him. I certainly didn't trust Him as He deserves to be trusted. I was living proof of Brennan Manning's words:
You will trust God only as much as you love him. And you will love him not because you have studied him; you will love him because you have touched him-in response to his touch.1
I yearned for the touch of God.
I had no idea how it would happen, but I prayed that His fingers would press on my heart and mark me with the certainty of His presence. In almost immediate response to that prayer, I stumbled into a study of the classical spiritual disciplines.
Over the next few years, I discovered there is much more to the life of discipleship than I had ever imagined. I learned that walking with God involves more than merely doing the four or five things a denomination may teach in a six-week discipleship class.
I learned that the spiritual disciplines are God's means of training us, finite and flawed creatures, to love the invisible, almighty, infinite Creator; they are the means by which we learn to enjoy Him; they are the means God uses to nurture our confidence in His goodness and love.
1 Manning, Brennan, REFLECTIONS FOR RAGAMUFFINS (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) p. 201