Walking in Unfamiliar Territory

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Barnabas loves to hike! It doesn’t matter if we’ve walked the same trail a hundred times; he acts like it’s a whole new experience. He runs and plays and wears himself out. And because he is so good at hiking off-leash, Jason and I can hike at our own pace. Barnabas knows his boundaries. He understands he is allowed to venture off the trail, run ahead, or lag behind as long as we are always in his sight. And Barnabas follows the rules better than any other dog we’ve had. He’ll run over to the side to study something and pop his head up every few seconds to be sure he can still see us. If we move far enough away that he loses track, he forsakes his current study and runs after us. He stops at every bend in the trail to ensure we’re never out of sight. Every hike is a pleasant experience for each of us, and we love that we can depend on him to be so cooperative. Despite his many quirks, he truly is a good dog!

When we took him out yesterday for some much-needed exercise, we did a portion of the trail we’ve only done once or twice with him, and we immediately noticed something. Because the path was unfamiliar to him, he stayed within ten feet of us at all times. He still explored and kept his own pace, but he never strayed too far from our presence. Once we reached the familiar portion of the trail, however, he let loose and did his own thing though still within the bounds of what he knows we expect of him. As we discussed his behavior, Jason made a comment that echoed the words of my prayer that morning. He said, “Yes, he stays close when in unfamiliar territory, but once he’s back in his comfort zone, he feels more comfortable to stray farther from us.”

During my prayer walk earlier that day, I had poured out my heart to the Lord about how far out of our comfort zones Jason and I felt lately. For me, I’m a creature of habit and routine, so the concept of being in a different church every week and always meeting new people is a bit overwhelming. For Jason, he is one who loves to be active and doing, so sitting at a desk for hours on end calling and emailing pastors and churches to book meetings is tiresome and tedious. We’ve both had to fight the temptation to say, “Let’s do something else today. Let’s do what we’re familiar with, what we’re comfortable with.” Some days, we have to make ourselves to what we know we need to do.

As I laid out my heart, a thought struck me, and I verbalized it to the Lord. “But maybe that’s the way you want it to be, Lord. Maybe you want us to be out of our comfort zones so we’ll stay close to You, so we’ll lean on You for strength and support. Maybe our time here is so we can learn to depend and trust on You more. So, Lord, please help us to keep this in mind when we get discouraged and want to quit. Remind us there’s a purpose for being in unfamiliar territory and give us the grace and strength to accept where we are.”

I guess we’re no different from Barnabas. When we’re in familiar territory, we tend to do our own thing and go our own way. Sure, we stay within sight of our Master, but are we really walking with Him? Once we’re out of our comfort zones, it’s an entirely different story. We stay close to the Master. We have to. We don’t know which way to go or what to do. We need His guidance. We crave His assurance. We depend on His knowledge and strength. Yes, in our uncertainty, we’re less likely to stray. And considering that—as difficult as it is for me to say—I thank God for removing us from our comfort zones. I praise Him for loving us enough to lead us through unfamiliar territory. The entire process serves as another reminder that what I think is good is not always what is best. Thankfully, God knows the difference!

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way.
— Psalm 37:23
A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.
— Proverbs 16:9
And they commanded the people, saying, When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore.
— Joshua 3:3-4

Oh, Deer!

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When time and schedules permit, Jason and I enjoy taking Barnabas to a local heritage preserve for his daily walk. Unlike our neighborhood, there are no cars to contend with, and Barnabas can walk off leash. Jason and I can relax more as we walk and talk while Barnabas tromps ahead of us smelling (and marking) every leaf, tree, and stick.  

As we were walking him one day last week, we heard rustling in the tall brush. This is not uncommon as the heritage preserve is home to much wildlife, including a variety of birds. It’s not every day, however, that two deer leap out of the brush onto the trail just a few feet in front of us. As their feet hit the trail, they turned and bounded down the path in the opposite direction, and Barnabas gave full chase.  

We called to him, and he stopped for a moment. From the look on his face, the dilemma within him was apparent. On the one hand, he wanted to obey. He’s grown very good at that. But, on the flip side, those pouncing deer were such tempting targets. So, off he went, and let me tell you, that dog can move!

Because of his momentary hesitation, the deer were long gone by the time he turned the corner of the trail, so he came running back to us, his tongue lolling to one side, his eyes wide as saucers. Suddenly, three more deer leaped out of the brush and followed the path of the previous ones. Once again, Barnabas took off. We called to him and even used his e-collar, but the temptation was too great. So, we watched as the deer fled for their lives and Barnabas showed us how fast he could run. Fortunately, the deer were faster, and our pup soon returned, tongue still flopping. Never a dull moment!

For the rest of the walk, Barnabas kept his eyes open and his ears lifted, straining to catch any sign of more deer to chase. Jason and I chatted about how close of a race it had appeared to be between predator and prey.

“Deer can outrun dogs,” Jason commented. “It may seem close, but they’re definitely faster. The trouble is, they can’t keep that pace for long. They’re sprinters, not marathon runners. The good thing is, Barnabas is the same way. He’s fast, but he can’t keep up that steady pace.”

The conversation made me think about the race of life we’re running. I often feel like it’s a race for sprinters, each of us hurrying to do this and that, to go here and there. So much to do, so little time. Yes, it seems many of us act like sprinters in our Christian walk, but we can’t keep that pace for long, and pretty soon, we burn out, growing weary in well-doing.

I don’t think God ever intended for life to be a sprint. I believe He meant for it to be a marathon. A race designed to be run with steady persistence, not speed. One where we don’t burn up all of our energy in the first half, leaving nothing for the remainder of the journey. I don’t recall a single time in the Bible where Jesus hurried. You talk about someone with a busy schedule and every excuse to run from place to place! Still, he didn’t rush around. He didn’t hurry through a task so He could move on the next one. Yes, there were times He grew weary, but when that happened, we see Him taking time to rest, time to get away from everything and everyone except His disciples (and sometimes even them).  

Jesus lived His life on earth as if it were a marathon, not a sprint. Slow and steady wins the race. And I believe He wants us to do the same. Life is not about how much we can accomplish each day or how busy we are. It’s about glorifying God in all we say and do, and how can we do that if we’re too tired even to get out bed?

I don’t know how those poor deer felt that night after their horrible flight from the big, black dog, but I can tell you this: Barnabas crashed! He crashed hard. As soon as we got home, he ate his dinner, crawled up on the couch, and started snoring. And he slept soundly until later on the next morning. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
— Hebrews 12:1-2

Trust the Teacher

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A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing different teaching methods. The conversation began when we were talking about Barnabas, and I shared how the trainers we hired when we first got Barnabas literally didn’t know what to do with him. They knew one way of training, and that way worked with 99% of the dogs they encountered. But Barnabas was among the 1% that left them grasping at straws in figuring out how to train him. They never figured it out, but Jason and I did.

I dusted off a few of my skills from my nine years of teaching kindergarten and first grade. The main reminder I needed is that not every student responds to the same methods of teaching. Each student is different, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out what works best for each one. Some students learn well by playing games, others by singing songs. Some prefer visual learning while others are auditory learners. Some excel with a book in their hands, but others may need a different hands-on experience such as using a felt board or manipulatives. Good teachers will work with their students until they discover how to meet each child’s needs. (I say “good teachers” because my friend was quick to point out that not every teacher has figured that out, and I agree.)

Armed with this knowledge, Jason and I stopped trying to train Barnabas according to the trainers' instructions. We didn’t even approach his teaching in the same way we had each of our dogs in the past. We began by observing him, paying special attention to what set him off and what created peace and contentment in him. We learned to anticipate his moods and outbursts and correct them before they got out of hand. Now, though he still needs to work on his social skills outside his environment, he is the most obedient and well-behaved dog we’ve ever had. Who would have thought?

Well, the Lord for one. You see, He is well-acquainted with this teaching method and uses it with His children and those He is calling to Him.

What man is he that feareth the Lord? him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose.
— Psalm 25:21

Did you catch that? God will teach in the way He chooses, and I do not doubt that He—being the perfect Teacher—would use the form that best serves the one with whom He’s dealing. For example, when teaching Jason how to get from Point A to Point B, God would know Jason navigates best when given street names and road numbers. Me, on the other hand, I want the street names, but I also need landmarks. God knows that, and so I believe He teaches us accordingly.

Sometimes, we see God working in the life of a friend or coworker, and we complain, “Hey! How come God’s never talked to me like that? Why doesn’t He show me the stuff He shows her? Why must I attend the school of hard knocks while the Lord gently leads him along?”

Simple answer—we’re not that person! And if God is not using specific teaching techniques on us, it may be because He knows they won’t work. Or perhaps He has tried, and we’ve been too preoccupied to notice. The fault, I guarantee you, lies with the student, not the Teacher.

My point is, trust the Teacher. He knows what He’s doing. He has chosen the teaching methods that will get you where you need to be in the best way possible. It may not be the fastest or the gentlest, but it is the best. The Teacher loves and cares for us far too much than to ever give us less than His best. Trust Him, and be the best student you can be!