Tuesday 1 September 2015

Moving On

The old warhorse, Maximus, went to the great pheasant shoot in the sky, a little over a year ago. It is rather odd that I almost feel guilty about not having written about it until now. Perhaps it is a defining Britishness that makes the passing of one's dog such a pivotal event in one's life, or maybe it is an everyone issue; it is certainly a shooting person's issue. I once read an article where the author commented, almost as an aside, "I wept for 3 days when my dog died; I only wept for 1 when my wife passed". I'm not in that league, but it did have a big impact on me.

He certainly finished well. Two days before his final car journey he had scampered a couple of miles through the woodland behind our house, tail still whirling a figure of eight of pure zeal and joy as he snuffled out every pheasant on the estate. Then it was a very simple train of events. He trotted up a slight slope in the garden, his back legs suddenly collapsed, and without any show of distress or pain he looked back at me...and we both knew. I said aloud to my wife, "He's dead", and the spaniel didn't touch a scrap of food or take a lap of water from that moment on. We both just knew.

I carried him to his bed and just sat there, trying to tempt him to drink and offering a tasty morsel or two, but it was only to try to express concern and affection; I knew it wouldn't work. He patronised me by gazing up with droopy but affectionate eyes, and the three-quarter tail of the working spaniel thumped a reciprocally affectionate drum beat on his bed for me.

He stayed inside all night. There was no pain expressed, but then he rarely showed any expression of pain. This was the dog that had torn open his shoulder on a barbed wire fence, carried on working for half an hour afterwards, and I only realised there was an issue when he emerged from a stream and his left leg was running red from top to bottom. He didn't flinch or stop wagging his tail for a second; life was too much fun to worry about the trivialities of blood. The same dog retrieved a shot rabbit to hand, having snapped his leg in a spiral fracture on the way out to get the fluffy vermin. He waited until I had taken it from his mouth before he had collapsed at my feet.

He was as tough a beast as I have ever seen, and as brave as a lion.

I phoned the vet at 0800hrs the next morning and forty-five minutes later I watched the blue liquid from the syringe enter his veins, he looked up at me for the last time, and I saw the eyes half close in death, then in an instant blue over in death's fixed gaze. It is a sight I have seen in countless deer I have shot, but to see it in my mate was as much as I could bear. Even the poor veterinary nurse was stroking my arm as my tears moistened his fur.

When I arrived home, the pointer was in the pen he had shared with his "big brother" for two years. He hadn't seen me take the old boy out in the car that morning, but he howled like a wolf baying at the moon for the whole day. He, too, just knew.

There will be those that won't understand the big deal about this I'm sure, and they are perhaps right to view it as overly sentimental. There are of course, myriad things of an almost infinitely more important nature happening every day around the world. But not that day in my world. I am not one to anthropomorphise; it's not in me. My feelings are more in line with a sense of emptiness, something not being there that really should be, and its being missing has left a hole that cannot be filled.

Which is why I didn't try to. I chose to move on instead.

Gunnar is not Maximus. It's one of the reasons I chose a different breed for my next working dog. Their personalities are completely different, as are their working styles. The younger did not step in to the shoes of the elder; he brought along his own clogs to dance to the different tune that I play for him. From my point of view this avoids any comparisons that may not be helpful. That said, I have remarked (out loud of course) to the pup that he does have a much better  nose than the spaniel, and that he is inherently more biddable (Maximus was prone to going "self-employed" if you didn't give him something to do...all the time). On the other hand, when the neighbour's dog attacked Gunnar, he looked at me and scurried out of the way. The same dog had tried it on with the 12 year old, rather deaf spaniel, attacked him from behind, and had received the kicking of his life from the great warrior: never a step backwards!

I got so many things wrong when I trained the spaniel, not least of which was that I was too hard on him. He always forgave me (there's a bit of anthropomorphism for you) and we worked together for 12 years. It was such a joy. I have just started working with Gunnar really. He is also a great joy (apart from his penchant for mutton. Live mutton that is). I do tell him that his big brother was never so rude, and we are reaching an understanding, but the sight of a deer-sized beast in the woods, even if woolly coated, is still hard for him to resist. Ah well, we'll move on from that as well. He is also a great joy to spend time with.

I try not to  think of how long I'll have him for. The great white hunter, J.A. Hunter said, "You get too fond of a dog. Not until after his death do you realise how much he meant to you. I  sometimes wonder if the pleasure in owning a dog is worth the misery caused by his death".

The jury is still out for me, but in the meantime I intend to have many adventures with the new boy. He really is coming on a treat, though still as mad as a box of frogs on occasion. But I  take great comfort in reading words of great hunters like J.A. Perhaps I'm not such a soppy sentimentalist after all. And if I am, I am in the best of company.

What does God think of all this? And anyway, where do animals go after they die?

Don't know...and, don't know.

Here's what I do know. God gave us dominion over animals. We must therefore treat them with responsibility and authority. I do that with my animals, and with the animals that I hunt with my animals.  I reckon God is pleased with that. What about my sadness at their dying? He gave me emotions and He wants me to express them. That can only be wrong if I am more sad about the death of a dog than I am for example, at the suffering of people that I know. The challenge comes if I start to care more for animals in general than I do for humans in general. I do struggle with the idea of giving money to save stray dogs when there are still starving children on our streets.I need to make sure my perspective is clear, even when people blur the lines by being so, well, awful to each other at times!

I've no idea where animals go after they die, but I am absolutely certain that God has the perfect answer to that. And it will always be full of love, affection, fairness and be absolutely, and profoundly, right.

So I'll leave that with Him. Same place I left Maximus when I walked out of the vet's, heart in bits, carrying only a  lead, but moving on, back home to take Gunnar for a walk.

The woods remain beautiful...but I still miss the whirling tail in the undergrowth. Always will.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Parables of Gunnar: Pleasing Progress

The boy is 18 months old, which means still very immature for the breed. He is all legs and wiriness, prone to bouts of running around in circles, throwing rags or pieces of moss up in the air just because he can, and generally being playful and frequently over-exuberant. But amongst all of that he is slowly being trained into the deer tracking dog that I want him to be.

Frequently a deer dog is kept in the car during the stalking outing and only used should a beast be wounded and/or lost. I want more from my dog; I want him to accompany me in the woods and on the hills, walking to heel, sitting down next to me as I scan the woodland, and doing his bit to literally point me in the direction of where the deer will be. Then I want him to lie down out of sight while I close on the selected beast and take the shot. I need him to remain quiet and motionless until all this is done and I go back to him and release him verbally so that we can go to the shot beast and get it processed for the larder back at home. All of this requires a lot of training and buckets of patience. But if I do not succeed he will be only a fraction of the dog that I really want. If we don't succeed I will feel that I have let him down because he will not be able to come out into the woods with me nearly as often. If he is prone to making a noise, or will not be still or simply doesn't show any ability in scenting the deer, then we will both miss out on truly fulfilling our sporting ambitions. For me, working with the dog is every bit as fulfilling and enjoyable as the hunting itself.

So, has he got it in him? As I type this the adolescent lunatic is chewing on an already burst football outside in his pen. He is constantly tormenting the old warhorse Maximus, who nevertheless is still top dog when it really matters. However, lunatic or not, he certainly has the latent ability to be truly wonderful. I can already tell by his body language whether he is on to a pheasant, woodcock, rabbit or deer, and his pointing ability is outstanding: he goes into leopard crawl as soon as a bird is located, then, if it does not fly he turns and locks into position just a few yards from the quarry, front paw raised, eyes fixed in a laser beam stare. Very impressive to see and hugely enjoyable for us both when I send him in and have the bird fly off through the woods; the woodcock jinking its way at low level through the tree foliage, the pheasant rising powerfully amid a clatter of wings and the iconic call of the fleeing cock bird. Not sure who enjoys it more.

He is best on the deer though. Last time out he took me straight to a couple of beasts, then laid flat as I did the leopard crawling forward. It took 5 minutes before I could take the shot and the pup didn't twitch for the whole time, his head remaining firmly on the ground. At the rifle report he walked up to me so I took him back and laid him down again all nice and calmly. As I began the approach to the fallen animal another appeared which Gunnar saw. I sat him down with a hand signal, crawled in to position again and took a second shot. On looking back to see his reaction, he hadn't moved, and his eyes were fixed on me, awaiting instruction. Outstanding!

Then on the way home he put up another beast and began chasing it through the woods. Just to keep me humble! He turned off on the command, but it is clear he is not altogether trained yet. Does that detract from my enjoyment of him, or from his accomplishments? Of course not. He is a work in progress.

As are we all.

I am delighted with him.

As is our Creator as we seek to please Him, and He never gives up on training us, for our benefit and for His glory. He likes spending time with us too, even more than I enjoy spending time with the pup!

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Are we actually allowed to enjoy it?

I don't go in for new year resolutions. I cannot recall a time when I did. I do like to reflect on what has happened over the past months as a means of spring-boarding me forward towards the next stage of my life, or at least the next project that might come my way. The past few months have been very eventful, and for the most part exceptionally enjoyable and fulfilling. Those of you that follow my exploits here will be aware of some of the events of the past year in this minister's varied life, but to precis my career over 2013 it looked something like this:

  • preaching at our little church, Windermere Community Church and trying to pastor the little flock under my care.
  • freelance outdoor instructing, including mountain walking, rock climbing, abseiling, ghyll scrambling (that's canyoning to my colonial colleagues!) and bushcraft.
  • Deer stalking. Maintaining a healthy population of Roe and Red deer on two estates, taking out an occasional client and training Gunnar, my German Wirehaired Pointer pup as a specialist deer dog. I will write some "parables of Gunnar" over the coming weeks and months all being well.
  • Bible teaching. At Capernwray Hall. This year I was involved in their "Impact" week and taught on the first 9 chapters of the book of Romans to around 50 young adults (18-25 year olds). A great time was had by all. Well, I enjoyed it.
  • Employed work at a local Tree Top Adventure company. This is a really fun day out for families and groups, or even as an individual. I was part of a tremendous team of enthusiastic instructors and managers and hope to be a part of the team this year as well.
  • Writing. Preparing to do another book this year and have recently joined the team of contributors for Our Daily Journal. This is a daily devotional for those who want to dig into the Bible a little more than just the basics. I'm very excited about this opportunity.
  • Chaplain to the local Air Training Corps. I get to play non-combatant soldier (well, airman actually) for a squadron of young people aged between 13 and 19. It is enormous fun and a great opportunity to help develop young people in all kinds of ways. I have to resist my desire to take weapons training and unfortunately am not even allowed to wear "greens" (that's camouflage or DPM to those of you not au fait with the lingo).

There is more that has been going on, including taking school assemblies as a local minister and a trip to the French Alps last September which was outstanding, but it is clear that life has been anything but mundane. 

My problem, which I am sure is not only my own, is that as a minister I am called to be about God's business; that is, preaching His word, shepherding His flock, living a life pleasing to Him, and talking to those who do not know Him in a way that will help them move towards a faith in Jesus Christ. All of this is extremely important, very burdensome and must be approached with enormous sobriety. It must not be taken lightly. Ever. And I agree with that statement entirely.

And yet I spent a very large portion of last year, in all of my different guises, laughing my head off, sometimes giddy with excitement.

Is this allowed? Is my role not far too important to laugh and joke about?

What a twit. The best way I can convince people that Christianity is real, relevant and personal, is by living life fully, as He intended. That includes enjoying the wonderful variation He has given to me, and allowing myself the freedom to be me within all those roles and situations.

I actually forgot about that for a while; for a few years actually. The "having fun" bit. Just thought I ought to write that down in case there were some of you out there who weren't allowing yourselves to enjoy your Christian life because the task is just too serious, or perhaps you have rejected all this religious nonsense because folks who are into it seem so frightfully dull all the time!

Sometimes this walk can be hard work, really hard work. Sometimes it's like this:

or this:

or this!

And we are allowed, nay commanded to enjoy it. What's not to enjoy? I have so much to be thankful for. I hope that I express my gratitude best by receiving and relishing in all His goodness to me, whether the experience is good, bad or just the ordinary day-to-day!

Friday 6 December 2013

A Misunderstood Hunter's Tale!

I arrived at the estate long before the sun deigned to creep over the horizon. The headlights of the car had still required full beam right up to the point of turning the engine off. I made sure the interior lights didn't switch on as I opened the driver's door and prepared myself for the considerable physical task ahead of me. Deer stalking in the winter months often requires a determination that would keep most folks from ever trying it. Just getting out of bed at stupid o'clock, dashing silently around the house retrieving gear and unlocking the gun cabinet, before shivering your way to the iced-up car and chattering your way down the first few miles of bleary-eyed road are a string of hurdles that, let's face it, most of us could do without.

But like a moth to the proverbial flame, here I was again.

The physical task ahead of me, without the aid of a steaming brew of tea or a bite of breakfast, was the steep fell side that I had to climb before I started my approach to the woodland. It's not mountaineering by any stretch, but it is a long hike, with around 600ft of stiff ascent up grass, through bracken beds and often negotiating the odd tumbledown of boulders. Iced boulders that is, to go along with the slippery frosted tussocks of grass. All negotiated in the gloom of the pre-dawn, and most importantly, all surmounted silently! I was in pursuit of a red stag and those boys don't have great big ears for no reason. They can detect a human footfall at a truly stunning distance. The galling thing is that they can differentiate effortlessly between me crunching on the bracken stalks and a sheep doing the same. The woolly terrors (sentinels of the fells for all those who try to approach deer with them on patrol) bumble blindly on through the terrain without causing any distress to our cervine quarry, but one slight slip from me, one tiny error in foot placement, and all of my preparation, sleep deprivation and other sufferings will be in vain. The hills and woodlands will be bereft of deer. Guaranteed.

I ascended the hill in true ninja fashion; I swear I must have been floating. Upon arrival at the summit the grey of the dawn was allowing a view over the stunning heather moor and, looking back I could see the frosted Lakeland hills capping a vista that could only be England: patchwork fields, oak woodlands, a silver snake of the river Lune meandering past my village of birth and on to the sea. I was greeted by the "goback, goback, goback" cries of the grouse and a couple of cock pheasants rose out of the ground almost at my feet, giving my heart a lurch it really did not need after the recent exertion. But it was all wonderful. For me, this is fillet steak for my soul. It just cannot be beaten.

I knew where the reds had been lying up, and so I went to the edge of a plantation looking down the steep sides of the wood along a ride between the old forest and a newly planted fir tree section. I stood behind a wall and waited.

And waited.

I heard him before I saw him. A methodical crunch of feet in the frosted fallen oak leaves. But as usual he didn't appear where he was supposed to. The wily brute was adjacent to me rather than below. More importantly he was due south of me, at no more than 50 yards. The wind had been very gentle but consistent, from the north. This was trouble. One whiff of the vile stench of human and he would be off and away at the gallop.

I opened my mouth wide and exhaled slowly. The vapourised air drifted so slowly, but unmistakably, away from the beast. A shift in the wind to just a point west of south! Outstanding. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would say, is afoot!

Then just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone. He was slap bang in my vision not five seconds previously, and then, nothing. I was filled with admiration, not dismay, as an animal weighing at least 250lbs and standing a good 4ft to his shoulder, could blend so marvellously with his surroundings. I strained my eyes for a few moments, then risked raising the binoculars to see through the undergrowth. Nothing.

A minute later he reappeared nearly 80 yards away. Unbelievable. I just made out a movement of those great antlers and there he was in full view, and more importantly, completely unaware of my presence. As he disappeared over the crest of the hillock, I risked it all and climbed over the wall, straining enormously to lower my body silently onto the leaf strewn grass beneath me. I crept along the top of the wood using trees to mask my movement and hoping my floating technique stayed with me.

Ten minutes later I peered through the trees out on to the bracken bed marking the start of the open fell side. I thought I had lost him. I looked around the next spruce tree and bobbed my head up and down to see between the branches.

At 70 yards distant a huge, antler-dominated head stared accusingly back at me. Rumbled! Frozen to the spot I knew the game was up. Any second now he would be off in that superlatively powerful prance of the red stag, away over the horizon and gone forever. Magnificent, majestic, and missed!

But instead he pawed the ground and took two then three paces toward me. Unsure, but half challenging he advanced. Suddenly he was no longer silhouetted on the horizon but was descending the slope back toward the "safety" of the woodland.

This meant I now had a safe backstop for the bullet. On he came purposefully, standing tall and staring. For a second, perhaps two but not more, his view of me was masked by a large tree trunk as he advanced down the slope. It was time enough for me to throw the .30-06 to my shoulder and rest my hand against the same trunk. He appeared again and stood glowering at the unknown interloper.

The sound-moderated rifle gave a muffled bark which surprised him and he trotted a few paces. He stood and looked around. I had already reloaded but the small crimson drip on his shoulder showed a perfect strike. He looked away from me then back towards the woodland that had been his home for the rutting season at least, as if to take in one last view. Then he swayed, the front legs buckled and down he went. Most poignant of all was the plume of exhaled air vapour that shot up into the sky from behind the heather where I knew he lay. His last breath dissipated into the morning blue and he was done.

He looked so much better when he was alive. As a deer manager I am very clinical about how the rest of the story goes, but every time I touch the eye with my sticks (to confirm the beast is dead. It's called the blink test) I always feel a sense of regret. That blued eye, now lifeless, listless and merely  a carcass for the larder, had been so much more exciting as it had stared defiantly at me only moments earlier.

But I still love it. The whole adventure. Does that make me a hypocrite? Am I bloodthirsty? Am I immoral? Do I not care about the suffering of animals?

And what on earth has any of this to do with preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Merely this, for what it's worth. I am passionate about what I do. I go to extraordinary lengths to be good at whatever I do and I do not mind suffering in order to get there. That is how God made me. My passion for the countryside, and for deer stalking in particular, is no more than (indeed it is less than) my passion for the One who died to set me free. If you claim Christ as your Lord and Saviour, allow me to ask you this: are you passionate about Him? Can you not help yourself from talking about Him, no matter who you are with? I don't mean forcing the conversation round to evangelism in a cringing affected sort of way. I mean, does your life and example lend itself to people asking you questions that naturally lead into conversations about who Jesus is in your own life? Moreover, do you spend time in prayer asking God to open up conversations about your faith wherever you go, especially if you are going to encounter non-believers? Or do you pray that no one will notice and hope you can keep your mouth shut.

Sorry friend, that ain't passion! I am not asking everyone to have the same level of passion as me, or to be passionate about the outdoors as I am. What I am asking is that our passion for Jesus should be more than our passion for anything else. If you get excited about football and talk about the game for hours each week, but never mention your faith except for a couple of whispered sentences with friends on a Sunday, then let me tell you friend, you have a problem; and it's a serious one!

Do you find my hunting stories a bit much, rather nasty and having a smell of blood lust to them? I am becoming accustomed to being misunderstood, both in the outdoors, and more usually, from when I have been behind the pulpit. If you are in a similar predicament let me tell you where I am up to on that front.

Are you right before God? Do you sense His pleasure with you? Do you keep short accounts of your sins? If so, then sleep well, and get on with life! I no longer explain myself to folks who want to have a pop at me about hunting, Christianity, or my theological stance on whatever issue, and unless God prompts me to offer explanations I tend to listen to the rant and then move on. The hard bit is being content to live life being misunderstood. The way I do that is to seek only the audience of One. That is not arrogance. It is the opposite, because I no longer see the need to defend myself.

I defend the faith I have in Him, I do not defend me. I often engage in debate, but it is about Him, and it is for His glory and for their salvation or sanctification. It's not about me winning an argument or feeling justified so I feel better about myself; that would be selfish and fleshly. If I am offended by being misunderstood then part of my old self, my flesh as the apostle Paul says, is still alive. The fact is, you cannot offend a dead man! I am beginning to learn that lesson. It still hurts sometimes, but I am gradually starting to enjoy it.

A bit like pushing through the pain of a freezing dawn in order to pursue a worthy goal, for all the right motives. Even if nobody else understands.

The steaks are in the fridge!

Saturday 24 August 2013

What's Your Obsession?

I read on a T-shirt recently, "Obsession is a word used by the lazy to describe those that are dedicated!" Brilliant. Our perspective often colours how we define what it is to be obsessed. For example, some people think I am obsessed because I work out at the gym three times a week. Those in the gym who go there every day might think me lazy. My dedication to deer stalking, when I set my alarm for 2.30 (that's 0230hrs, 2.30 am) could be perceived as obsessive to anyone who has not watched the Roebuck appear out of the half light of the pre-dawn, his foot falls through the dead bracken rendered mute by the resonance of the dawn chorus. My desire to be consistently leading extreme routes on the rock (not yet achieved) is the working of an obsessed mind to some, but to those who warm-up on much harder routes it may well seem tame and even lackadaisical.

So is obsession relative or is there an absolute obsession? And is it always a negative trait?

Now, this guy is a real obsessive, just plain bonkers at times:

At the time this was taken I could have been whistling The Grenadier Guards and dancing a Can-Can and he would not have twitched. You see, he had spotted what we were out looking for: a Roe deer, and nothing, absolutely nothing in the universe was as important as that. He's the same even now, with deer, pheasant or woodcock. The eyes give it all away; nothing else matters.

That's why they are called the "windows of our souls". Our eyes reveal what we really feel, what is really going on inside.

So how does this:

Become this:

I'm not talking about size, of course. I mean, how does that blank gaze into all that lovely new world become a focused stare at the chosen goal of life (look at the eyes of the last shot; even a side view can pick out the laser beam stare!)?

I get my lads to focus on what I teach them is important. I also discourage them from chasing the wrong goals in life. In Maximus's case this was rabbits, in Gunnar's, sheep. I do this because I know what they are bred for, what is latent in their very being, what they are designed to excel at. I also know what will be destructive for them, and what will be truly fulfilling for them.

And I purposefully make them obsessed with pursuing that goal.

Is it wrong of me to inculcate a desire to do one thing above all else, to spend every waking moment (and many of their sleeping ones if you watch them at night) in pursuit of one goal above everything else? Some say it is, forcing my dogs into being hunters when they should be allowed to simply run and play and dash around the fields.

At the risk of seeming opinionated and even blunt, I have to say that that is wrong. It is incorrect, erroneous, fatally flawed and in all, complete mumbo-jumbo. Taking a creature that is specifically bred for a purpose and then not allowing it to fulfil said purpose, indeed, frustrating its innate characteristics by not honing and perfecting their behaviour in order to fulfil its potential, is rather like taking an Aston Martin Vanquish  and using it to tootle down to the shops twice a week to collect groceries, never getting into 3rd gear and absolutely never exceeding the speed limit.

It would be just plain daft. When something is bred and designed for a purpose it should, nay, it must be allowed to realise that purpose, even to the point of seeming obsession.

What are we all designed for? What is our purpose?

As one who follows Jesus Christ, you must know my answer to that by now. We are designed to bring glory to God, to worship Him and Him alone, and to live lives that reflect the life of Jesus Christ to a lost world as He flows freely through each of us, by His Spirit

How are we pursuing that purpose? With total dedication? With absolute commitment? Here is the acid test for those who claim Christ: are those around you, especially those who are unsympathetic to your faith (and I hope there are some of those around you) calling you obsessed? Do they sneer and say you are taking all this Christianity stuff too far? I hope so.

Paul said, "for to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21) I don't care how you fudge it, that was an obsessed man. What does it say in the great letter to the Hebrews? ...let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith..." (Hebrews 12:1-2). Those eyes must be locked in laser beam stares, just like my pup.

Obsession for a Christian is total dedication to the One who died to set you free. He endured the full wrath of a holy God against sin, and that demands a total commitment to Him. Nothing else matters. It really is as simple as that.

The world will certainly call you obsessed. Unfortunately, so will most of the church, may God forgive them. But the Lord will call you blessed. He will also call you home when you have fought your fight and run your race.

And finally, and I write this with tears, the angelic host will applaud you in to your eternal reward, and as Bunyan wrote in his great work, The Pilgrim's Progress, as Mr Valiant-for-Truth crossed over the river, "all the trumpets sounded on the other side". Great blasts and proclamations of congratulations, of celebration, and of absolute true, eternal joy and satisfaction.

I will teach my lads to be obsessed about what they are designed for. My Saviour will train me in being obsessed about what I am designed for, so that I can achieve all that He has set out for me to do while I am on this race on earth. He knows what is best for me, and I trust Him to fulfil all of that through me. My obsession with Him, is through His dedication to me, and only those on the same race will ever understand. Where do you fit into this?

Friday 14 June 2013

Blockage Removal

Writer's block is a terrible thing. Those of you out there who have been following my recent ramblings will have probably guessed by now that I have been suffering from just such an episode. Every time I have sat at my desk to pen some pithy lines, describe my recent activities, or merely attempt to communicate a thing or two about my day, I have simply stared into space, or more frustratingly, I have typed a bunch of prose that was simply unworthy of reading. Most of it was barely intelligible and would have been a clear waste of minutes of your lives had any of you had the misfortune of logging on.

The worst of it was that I have been very busy with a whole range of jobs and distractions over the past few weeks. I have had groups out ghyll scrambling, abseiling, rock climbing and walking. I have been out looking for the wonderfully elusive Roebuck, and the young Gunnar has been dazzling me with his trainability and overall giftedness. In church life preaching to the faithful has been exciting and stimulating, and I have had a couple of bookings to talk about my recently published book. I am also going to be teaching for a week at Capernwray Hall at the end of the summer. You can see a preview of this event by clicking here.

So, how do I get over this writer's block? Paradoxically, by writing of course, which sounds glaringly obvious. Even if I write drivel and then delete it, it is important for me to carry on thrashing away at the keyboard. As I realised this, it began to dawn on me that the same is true of other aspects of my life:-
  • When I cannot climb a certain grade or type of route I still keep climbing. Sometimes I go elsewhere and have a change of scene, but I still keep going out on the hill.
  • When I go out every day for a week and do not see any deer I keep on going out, analysing what aspects of my hunting I may have become sloppy at in order to improve my technique and get back on to the beasts.
  • When I swim for a couple of hundred yards in the lake and feel like my lungs are about to explode, I assess what I am doing wrong so that I can get back in to going for a few miles at a time, rather than quitting and going home to a log fire and a cup of tea. I get out there again and push through the problems until I come out of the other side, wiser, more able, and more confident.
In my Christian walk, I find I have seasons of great joy, great revelation and enormous productivity, both personally in my pursuit of holiness and being more Christ-like, and also corporately as I see those around me growing through the ministry of the church and the ministry of preaching that God has given me. At other times I do not see, feel, or experience any of that productivity. Indeed, there are times of great darkness and loneliness, dotted with feelings of isolation, misunderstanding; a sense of worthlessness and a complete lack of success, or so it appears. These are the times of my spiritual "writer's block" and it is important that I see them as such, and rather than give up and retreat to the log fire of my (usually self-pity filled) own little world, I push through this, seeing it as preparation for the next step of maturity in my Christian life.

I wonder if any of you are in such a season as a Christian? Or is it just me and I have just made the massive error of writing in cyberspace that as a minister I have difficult times (good grief Fralick, call yourself a pastor?) Perhaps you do not claim to be a Christian but you can relate to times of drudgery or low points. At least now you can understand that becoming a Christian does not preclude the possibility of having internal struggles and times of feeling deflated. The difference for me as one who follows Jesus, is that I can stand on many promises contained in the Bible. In difficult times, when inspiration has dried up, when trials are coming thick and fast and when my usual skills seem to be failing me or have temporarily left me, I can look at the book of Romans chapter 8 verse 28, which says,
"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." 
That means ALL things, the good, the bad and the ugly things of life. God knows all of our ways, all of our problems and all of our struggles. For those whom He has called He will make everything work out for good. Absolute good. His perfect design and purpose.

Sometimes I despair at my own frailties and failings. I dislike being poor at something that I want to be good at. I dislike intensely that I cannot climb very well, that my body movement is stiff and lacks flair. I am highly irritable when I cannot figure out how to find an elusive deer that I need to cull for the good of the rest of the herd. I become despondent when, as a person who claims to be a writer, I cannot pen a single cohesive sentence in weeks of effort.

And most of all, I am excruciatingly embarrassed as a pastor, when I seem to have little or no spiritual vibrancy or Christian zeal in my life, robbed of joy and even love for a time. However, all of that vibrancy, zeal and joy comes rushing back in when I stand on His word, and refuse to let go of the promises contained therein: "And we know..." It will all work out for good, not because of who I am and what I can or cannot do, but because of who He is and what He has already done! He has paid for all of my failures, wrong doings, sins, crimes or whatever other words you can call them, and He has set my path towards Glory...and He can keep me on that path until the day I see Him face to face and He says, "well done, good and faithful servant..."

That'll do for me. How about you?

Ah, life's not so bad after all, writer's block or not!

Saturday 4 May 2013

Parables of Maximus: Learning Obedience

I have spent a few minutes this morning in "The Pen" with Gunnar. It is the controlled environment from which there is no escape (for him that is) and where I do the nitty-gritty bits of his training. These include, but are not limited to, walking to heel off the lead, sitting at a distance from me (and remaining so until verbally released) and the all important "down" command (where his head must remain on the floor no matter where or how I move), until again, the verbal release command is given. The Pen allows training, unhindered by most external stimuli, and without my having to constantly monitor the area for potential distractions that could destroy all that he has just learned. It's a really good place of education, so long as I keep the sessions short, always watching him for signs of boredom or, more often, impatience. In The Pen he learns to focus on me rather than on the world around him. I become the centre of his world and that is just what I want!

Maximus never had a pen. In fact, the concept of a pen, a place where I was his world, never hit his radar screen for possibly even 18 months after I bought him. The centre of Maximus's world was almost invariably the white bobbing tail of a fleeing rabbit. His enormous natural talent at scenting, flushing and chasing anything from mice to rabbits to pheasants meant that this world was always available to him whenever we went on a walk. It meant that I, in effect, did not exist once that scent had revealed the temptation of the white tail. Maximus's "Pen" soon became the entire countryside, mile after mile of endless playpen; rabbits and pheasants galore! Oh, and a forlorn, leash-carrying owner running for mile after mile after him, trying to avoid the prospect of having to pay the dog warden (again) for the privilege of picking him up at the dog pound the following day (or the day after that). I was never angry of course. Not once. How could I be angry with this:

No, not angry. Livid, incensed, deranged with fury, but never merely angry.

But it was not just rage at disobedience. It was much more the frustration of seeing such a talented dog behave so badly. You see, he knew what I wanted him to do. We both knew that he knew! He would get on a scent, and his tail would suddenly accelerate its wag and his ears would prick up, squaring his already large Spaniel head. As soon as I saw these signals I would blast the "sit" command with the whistle and make towards him with all haste, hand raised with the visual "sit" instruction. All the while he was no more than 15 yards from me. But, alas, all too often came the momentary look, the brief pause as we made eye contact. He would look at me, almost longingly, but then the demons within had their wicked, spiteful way yet again; the demonic, hated (by me) white cotton tail would bounce into view, and that was that: an explosion in the bushes and another defeat for the intrepid gun dog trainer.

All rather stupid really. The solution is so simple. Keep the dog on a lead until you know he is steady. Let him off only occasionally when you are in full control, and where you can almost guarantee there are no fatal distractions. However, my point is not about how to train your dog. It's this (and I know there is a generous dose of anthropomorphising going on here, so humour me, okay?): he wanted to please me, he knew what to do, and he really wanted to do as he was told. His pitiful, apologetic crawls back to me after each indiscretion were most endearing, and for the main part secured my full and unconditional forgiveness. However, he just could not stop reverting to type when temptation reared its head. It was therefore my job, not his, to secure success.

I had to intervene to ensure he overcame his temptations and help him to make the right choice: Obey me. Obey that whistle and ignore what you want to do; that way you get to hunt every day with enormous freedom. Work for me, not for yourself. In fact, if you work for me you get far more game than you ever would if you were self-employed.  I had to see the picture he couldn't, for his long-term benefit. Otherwise we simply could not work together.

Maximus could not possibly understand that, but I knew what was best for him.  So he spent the next five months confined to a lead, in areas almost devoid of game, until I knew he could handle the pressure of his world and still hear my commands above the noise and smells of that deceptive world; the world that promised him chase, thrills and freedom, but only delivered empty promises, never ending further horizons, and utter spent exhaustion with little to show for it at the end.

So you can see where this is going. God will often constrain those who genuinely love Him in order to help them to overcome themselves. They really want to obey but keep failing. God often intervenes to ensure long-term success, even if in the short-term it seems very constraining and even painful. In retrospect, if we are honest, we always see it as a time of closeness, progress, and even joy knowing that His hand, however firm it is on us, is always full of love (my hand on Maximus was not, regrettably, always so loving). The Bible says that even Jesus had to learn obedience. In fact, Hebrews 5:8 says, "although He was a son he learned obedience through the things which He suffered". So even Jesus Christ had to endure suffering to learn obedience. That is theologically mind-blowing, but there it is!

However, there is the other side to all of this. There is a difference between getting it wrong, succumbing to temptation, and those that simply have no interest in obedience unless there is something in it for them. The difference between failing when wanting to please and not caring if you fail is enormous. In fact, it is devastating. The Bible says in Matthew 7 that on the final day there will be those who had a name as believers, who gave lip service to being "gundogs" but who actually never really belonged to the Master. They were never, in fact, real working dogs; never a part of the team. To them He says "Depart from me... I never knew you".  Those that enjoy the world and all it can offer, and who refuse to listen to the master's voice are totally different from those who get it wrong but keep coming back because in their hearts they really do want to serve Him.

Maximus really wanted to be on "my team".  After a good number of months under close restraint, I was able to give him more freedom and eventually, by the age of 2, I had a promising young working dog. By age 3 he had become the stuff of legend (though not all for good reasons: he still got it spectacularly wrong on occasion). Now, at almost 12, he has earned his retirement but his heart will always be to hunt. Like I said in another post, he will certainly finish well. It's who he is.

And part of that is because it is who we have both made him. Together.  And often in times of difficulty.

Do you work for Him?  Or do you work for Him because it suits you, because of what is in it for you, and only on your conditions? Do you refuse to do certain things because "God would never ask me to suffer hardship" or because "that's not the way He works", or because "a loving God never allows a Christian to suffer pain, discomfort, poverty, loneliness, isolation, illness, loss of job, loss of friends, loss of home etc" If you have used these excuses, look at Hebrews 5 and Matthew 7, and then ask yourself, "Does He really know me or am I in danger of being disowned on the final day?

That's a tough message. It needs to be aired out today, especially in the current climate of "me first" and the heresy of prosperity preaching. And if you are in "The Pen" with God at the minute, I have a word for you: Rejoice! It means He is taking the time to make you more like Himself and is preparing you for a truly astonishing adventure; to fulfill all of the potential that He has put within you. Embrace it. Work at it.  Learn to love that constraint, that discipline, even that suffering.

It's worth it!