by Larry Patten
Though memories from decades before can be faulty, I believe my friend Josh’s reassurances about Susie are probably accurate.
“She’s a really old horse,” Josh said, “and treats everyone nice. You’ll be fine.”
During a summer in college, I worked on Josh’s family ranch. The property was located where California’s flat, fertile Central Valley met the foothills rising to Kings Canyon National Park. Awake before dawn, we were often still outside doing chores when the light of a long, hot day was fading.
We didn’t have much down time, but I recall bugging Josh about riding one of the ranch’s horses.
Old Susie was the safest.
Josh gave me quick instructions—which included controlling the mare with the bridle he’d easily looped over her head—and then stepped back. I swung my legs up and onto the saddle. Yippee-Ki-Yay! Call me Larry the Cowboy!
Susie promptly bucked and threw me off.
I may have had more time in the air than on the saddle.
Though a memory from decades ago can be faulty, I believe Josh announced, standing above me while I sprawled on the dirt and muck of the corral, “I don’t think she’s ever thrown anyone before.”
There’s always a first time. For Susie. For me.
They say you’re supposed to get back on the saddle, to make sure the horse knows who is the boss. I’m sure they are correct. And though I admire horses (and some of my favorite films are westerns), Susie was the first and last horse I, er, rode.
To this day, I wonder if I gave her too much or too little of the bridle? And certainly my wondering was prompted when reading one of Psalm 32’s cautionary verses:
Don’t be like some senseless horse or mule whose movement must be controlled with a bit and a bridle. [32:9]
Who was more senseless: Susie or me?
Oh, may God’s unbridled ways of love and hope and forgiveness guide me. Oh how the psalmist exults in the Lord’s blessings for each believer. The Lord’s love is all we need! The holy blessings will encourage us to abandon our trivial human sins and follow the Godly paths of righteousness.
However, a bridle may not be so bad.
In the season of Lent, as I embrace (or avoid) forty days of sacrifice, penitence, and discipline, I can be honest enough about my failings to crave a literal Lenten bridle to rein in my wrongdoing, and to offer me a lead for the best route toward a merciful faith. For me, you see, the psalmist is not preaching to the choir. Please, dear God, control my movement! Be as solid as smooth leather. Be as confident as a practiced horse whisperer, helping this fool of a human not be hurled onto the daily ground, and by the daily grind of life.
Though I fail more than succeed during Lent, these weeks inspire me to say No to the trivial and troubling in my life. Lent has also been a specific time for saying Yes to new opportunities. During one Lent, I decided to volunteer at a hospice. With Lent harnessing my me-me-me focus, I hoped to share my gifts and graces to something greater than . . . me. The volunteering became a job (including, bonus, a modest paycheck) for nearly ten years. Born from a bridled Lent, I gained a ministry with joy and purpose.
Isn’t the Reign of God also being the rein of God essential for us wayward, wandering humans? After all, like horses and mules, we are too stubborn for our own good. There’s more than stubbornness. When we brought our new dog to a puppy socialization class several years back, the trainer emphasized that our cute little canine buddies were amoral and selfish. She—the trainer—didn’t say that in a bad or good way. It’s just the reality of being a dog.
Aren’t humans also amoral and selfish?
What? No way!
We are God’s finest creation! We at the top of the food and faith chain! We are . . .
Susie, a sweet old horse, bucked and twisted. In less time than it takes to say “Whoa, Nellie!” I flew from leather saddle to hard dirt. My pal Josh laughed as he offered a hand. I dusted off my butt, sore and embarrassed. Why did I think a few seconds of instructions were enough? Why did I think I could ride like a Hollywood cowboy as soon as I was astride the horse?
I have utmost respect for whoever composed Psalm 32. I’m sure that ancient believer possessed an effortless and instant faith in God. And yet I share enough traits with horses and mules (and puppies) to need the divine bridle of a season like Lent.
My Lenten prayer is:
O God, give me guidance for Lent’s forty days. How easy to stray and forget your stunning love for every part of creation. How easy to blame another for throwing me off the path you beckon me to follow. How easy to be lost in work and worry and only see the worst in others. Each day, during and after Lent, rein me in with your never-ending Reign of Love. Amen.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian Century, Spirituality & Health, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.