I would have loved to have returned to my starting point, but the difficulty was that I was sitting on the back of a horse - - a large horse - - and the horse had no intent of going anywhere.
It had all started five weeks earlier when, after what probably was years of begging my parents to buy a horse (even though we had no yard in which to keep one), they invested in six weeks of horseback riding lessons for me. Each Saturday morning for six blissful weeks, I went to a stable about 20 minutes from my house, and with 10 or 11 other kids, took a 90 minute horseback riding lesson. We learned to clean the horses’ feet, brush them, saddle them, and how to give basic commands.
For the first five weeks we rode mostly in a ring, or two and from the barn to the ring. Each of those five Saturday’s I was assigned a short, stocky, chocolate horse named Charlie who was as compliant and un-opinionated as horses can possibly come. I think he must have been through about a million lessons because he knew the routine so well that before the instructor called out the next task, Charlie was already doing it. He was calm and, well, calm. Week after week, sweet, calm Charlie. Turn right. Turn left. Walk. And when things got really wild, we’d trot. Look out.
On week six, I arrived at the stable to find out we were finishing our lessons with a trail ride. Sounded fun. I headed to the stall where I knew I would find faithful, compliant Charlie. But to my surprise another kid was leading him out. “Hey, that’s ‘my’ horse, I always ride that horse,” I tried to explain. But one of the instructors pointed me in another direction. Today, I learned, I would not be riding short, stocky, chocolate, compliant, Charlie. But instead a tall Palomino named LIGHTNING!
Lightning flared his nose in and out as I approached him. He clearly was not compliant as Charlie was, and had no interest in being compliant. Sure, he would go through the lesson, he would deal with these children who had come to take a ride. But he would do so on his terms.
He was so much taller than Charlie that it took some extra effort just to get into the saddle, and then, of course, I was higher than usual so I had to adjust to being higher off of the ground. The group formed a line of horses and riders with an instructor at the front and one in the back. Lightning and I were maybe the third from the end. Things were fine and dandy until we reached a point on the trail where the instructor who was bringing up the back of the line apparently had to go to the front, leaving the back unguarded. Lightning casually stepped to the side of the trail; he kept moving, but allowed the other horses and students to move in front of us so that we were then at the back of the line.
We kept riding, along this trail through woods, until we came to a clearing that was a corn field. It was a cut corn field where the corn had been gathered except for what had fallen to the ground, and there was a fair amount on the ground; cobs and kernels. The line of horses and riders moved across the corn field over to the other side where the trail entered the woods again. Except for me and Lightning. He decided that it would be just a fine time to stop and have some corn. So he ate a piece or two. Casually standing there in the field looking very non-compliant and very cool. I watched the others getting farther away. I opened my mouth to call and this little squeak came out. Lightning just kept on eating. I would have loved to return. But he didn’t respond to my trying to move him with the reigns, or my taps on his sides with my feet. It was like he knew I had been riding Charlie for five weeks! Gone was compliance and calmness. Lightning was going to go on the trail ride with the little humans, but he was going to do so on his terms. And so I waited. And waited. Watching him just pick up cob after cob, lollygagging along in that corn field. Return? Return?
Joel wrote to people who needed to return, but maybe didn’t know how to. Or maybe didn’t want to. His book is written during what is an unspecified time (although it is estimated to be written at about 400 BCE) and the lack of specificity about the when of it all is actually kind of nice. Its message is applicable to anyone at any time in any place who has experienced devastation or loss or heartbreak to such at point that they feel separated from or pull themselves away from God. In Joel it is a massive plague of grasshoppers that come and destroy all of the crops, leaving nothing but destruction in their path.
I’ve thought all week about the soccer team that went down in that plane crash, the horrible loss of young and talented life. The continued devastation and death in Yemen and Syria and Iraq. And Gatlinburg in the midst of raging fire. Joel speaks to loss. Something horrible happens - - an event, a death, and experience that we do not understand, a feeling of injustice, a hurt, whatever it may be and we begin to feel as if we are being peeled or maybe wanting to peel ourselves away from God. God who allowed such a thing. God who leaves us in hurt. We pull away, not remembering or wanting that God. That devastation. That pain.
We know that feeling, don’t we? We’ve all felt that feeling. Maybe we are feeling it now. Hurt. If we separate ourselves from God, from community, from what we feel - - surely the hurt will subside.
But it doesn’t. It only grows. For oddly, the very thing that we remove ourselves from - - the loving God, our creator and redeemer and Savior - - when we pull away from God we begin to lose hope, and meaning, and understanding of everything around us.
We might be able to convince ourselves for a while that we can handle it, that we are strong enough or wise enough to go without the church to go without God - - spiritual, not religious, people say.
Hogwash. Hogwash. Return.
God longs for us to return, to be reconnected, and restored. And in returning to God we find this joy and fullness, and spirit filled wonderment that only in God can be ours. The Spirit pours out on everyone, everyone who connects with God - - men and women, old and young, servant and slave - - it matters not who we are or where we are or how old we are, this wild promise of goodness and a feeling of being right with ourselves and others and the world - - that, does not come in separateness or aloneness, but in the perfectness of Almighty God. Who calls us. Return. Return.
I know the pain is great, God assures us, and that you hurt, but return to me and you will be restored. You will be restored.
It became clear to me that I could do nothing that morning sitting there with Lightning in the corn field. Lightning was in charge. And so I calmly just said to him, “Knock yourself out; eat all the corn you want, but you need to get me back to where we started.” Return. He ate a bit more and the put his head up and sort of adjusted himself a bit. Then, without warning, he took off in a full gallop. (Remember that earlier when we were getting wild we were trotting. We had not galloped at all.)
I leaned down on him and held on, terrified out of my mind and loving every moment of it. It was not what I expected but it was really, really fun. He was still running full force as we pulled up to the back of the line of students. Thankfully the teacher still had not returned to the end of the line. Lightning ran up and joined the line, getting right back into the slow step of the other horses, looking like he had been there all of the time. He had made enough noise that one of the other students turned and asked me what I was doing. Heck if I know. Ask the horse.
This Advent season can be a challenging time. A hard time. It brings us face to face with the things that are hard in our faith and in our lives as we wait and slowly walk toward the manger. And there is no diminishing the difficulty of the journey. It hurts to hurt. It hurts to experience loss. It hurts to be in such a place of pain that separating from the Almighty makes more sense to us than staying on the trail ride, than staying in the church, than being religious and not just spiritual.
But God longs for us, my friends. God really does. To know healing and fullness and joy and the Spirit that dumps down in crazy fullness and wonderfulness on everyone - - everyone - - out of the hands and love of a merciful and compassionate and just and righteous and pure and loving God.
My prayer for you this season is that you would take all of the places where you feel separate and alone, where you have allowed yourself to be separated from God or you have chosen to separate yourself. And return. Return.
And I pray that prayer for everyone outside of these doors who needs to return as well. We just simply were not made to do it on our own. Our true joy, our fullness, the trail ride of awesomeness lies not in our own hands, but in the hands and heart of God.
It is Advent. Take advantage of every moment of this season. Be connected. Be reconnected. Encourage someone else who is disconnected to reconnect. May we return. Because we have today but who knows about tomorrow. Let’s not miss this moment. This call.
Return to the God who is with us in the midst of everything, whether we recognize His presence or not. Return to the God who seeks us and loves us and will not let us go.
Advent blessings, and returnings, and pouring outs of the Spirit upon you be yours today and every day. What a privilege to be sought after and wanted by Almighty God.
All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.