Sunday 18 August 2013

Get On Your Horse and Drink Your Milk

We might remember that 1972 film, The Cowboys, starring John Wayne in which there is supposed to be this famous line where he says or at least I was led to believe he said, "Get off your horse and drink your milk". Actually, I have checked and I'm not sure now that he ever said it. I once met some one who used to misquote the quote that probably never was by saying "Get back on you horse and drink your milk". The John Wayne film, The Cowboys features John Wayne as Wil Andersen, a cattleman who must get a herd of cattle to market in order to avoid financial disaster. Unable to find any men to help him he is forced to take on a group of schoolboys. Andersen becomes their teacher in the school of hard knocks but his methods work and the boys graduate and become real cowboys in the end. The story is enhanced by the eventual revelation that there is a gang of cattle thieves stalking them.

What I like about the film is that it's a film about growing up, growing up the hard way and facing the realities of life so I like the misquoted quote that never was, 'Get back on your horse and drink your milk.' When you get knocked down, get back up. Seeking strength through adversity can provide a way forward, and doing the things that are good for you, getting back in the saddle and drinking your milk, figuratively speaking is perhaps the best thing you can do after you've had a bit of a knock. As somebody once said, 'It's not how many times you've been knocked down that counts but how many times you get up.

I think that one of the two important skills most of us learn in life is how to swim and how to ride a bicycle. When we learn to do either of these things properly it becomes something that we never forget and when we have learned how to do it seems so natural after a while that it's hard to see why we couldn't do it in the first place. One of my most disastrous cycling adventures as a boy occurred when a friend of mine who thanks to a growth-spurt had grown much taller than me, let me try riding his adult sized bicycle. He had been given a big old post war bicycle, a big black heavy monster; it had three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears and a dynamo. Anyway, one Saturday afternoon he let me have a go on it. The received wisdom when learning to ride a bike is to keep your head up and look straight ahead. So off I went down a street which was in effect a gentle declining hill. At first everything was going well, but the bike was a too big for me it wasn't long before the descent degenerated into a wobble and then I ploughed into the back end of a parked car leaving a big dent on the boot. I picked up the bicycle and after handing it back to my friend ran away from the scene of the accident as fast as I could.

Later, I got my own bicycle and soon got the knack of cycling but like learning to swim it does require a bit of confidence. There's this silly joke about a man who goes to the naval recruiting office and as part of his interview is asked if he can swim. The man asks "Why, haven't you got any ships?" I too joined the navy and found learning to swim a lot harder than learning to ride a bike. I joined the navy and I couldn't swim. (Fortunately they had some ships at the time) They taught me sure enough. They had a course they called the 'backward swimmers' and I became a member of that elite club we had to turn up in the early evening and in the cold dark  mornings before breakfast and not only dressed in swimming trunks but in a boiler suit too, just to make it harder. You would be subject to having to jump in at the deep end, and having your hands hit with a pole if you tried to touch the side of the swimming pool. In the end of course, I came through it and passed what they called the naval swimming test. They taught only two things the breaststroke and how to tread water; the emphasis being on surviving and staying afloat rather than taking part in a swimming gala.

Once when I was at the backward swimmers class, we must have been going for a while then, because wearing our boiler suits we were taken up to the top diving board and told to jump in. Now there was one lad, a Scottish lad, he was a boxer and quite tough but he was frightened of jumping or diving into the water. I remember the PTI (Physical Training Instructor) encouraging him to jump but he wasn't having it. "But you're a boxer, said the PTI, you're not afraid to go into the ring and fight, what are you afraid of?" Shortly after that the boy was in the water he might have been pushed, I can't remember or he may have just jumped. I remember still being stood on the diving board looking down; he was in the water but neither at bottom of the pool or on the surface. Rather, he was suspended half way under the water rigid, not moving and obviously drowning. The PTI had to dive in to rescue him and to save his life. There is this saying that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Here was a dramatic illustration of this truth. The lad may have been drowning but it was really is own fear that was killing him.

In the gospel Matthew after the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand we are told that he then told his disciples to get into the boat and to go to the other side of the lake whilst he himself overlooked the dispersion of the crowds who had come hear him before he went up into the mountain to pray. The boat sailed on but the weather was against them and it was heavy going as we can read in Matthew: 'the boat was battered by waves' as it approached the other side in the early morning. At that point, the disciples were looking out of the boat and saw Jesus walking towards them on the lake. They as you can imagine, would be extremely frightened when they all saw this. This cannot be real, and Jesus is taken for a ghostly apparition until of he calls out to reassure them. "Take courage; don't be frightened it is I."  Then Peter calls out, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

There is this book that's titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat. I must admit that I've not read this book, written by the Christian evangelist, John Ortberg but apparently it was the winner of the 2002 Christianity Today Book Award. The blurb tells us that, "You're one step away from the adventure of your deep life and that within us all lies the faith and longing that sent Peter walking across the wind swept-sea of Galilee towards Jesus." We are challenged to come out of our comfort zone onto the risky waters of faith and so it means that we must get out of the boat if we want to walk on those waters. I think the key to understanding this fantastic story is not about achieving the impossible feat of walking on water but rather it's a spiritual lesson, an illustration of the power of faith, and the dangers and consequences of allowing doubt and fear to dominate our lives. In modern parlance we often refer to someone of great talent or ability to be able to walk on water. We don't of course mean that that person can actually do it; we know that it's just a metaphor we might employ for emphasis. In the ancient world, as now the ability to walk on water would have been reserved for the pages of scriptural spiritual truth of myth rather than for the day to day world of reality. The world is truly a wonderful and miraculous place but we know that there are truly some things that just don't happen.

What happens in the walking on the water story is that when Peter notices the strong wind, the tempestuous conditions in which he is achieving this supernatural feat, he becomes frightened and sinks into the water and has to be rescued by Jesus. "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" says Jesus. Often we do have to doubt; doubt and faith we are told often go together. One way to understand this is to keep an open mind. For example if we consider the use of traffic lights we know that red means stop and green means go. But legally, red means stop, amber means stop, and green means go but only with the clause: if it's safe do so. Now to be able to drive safely each day we not only have to believe that the traffic lights are safe and reliable but we have to use our own observation and judgement. Although we might believe the traffic lights are working properly and even though the lights are green we have to have faith that it is safe to proceed.

Sometimes a nervous driver loses faith in both the lights and his or her judgement and does not proceed until forced to do so by other by now irate drivers who will be making their displeasure felt. Faith is not a dogmatic certainty, for there lies madness and disaster. No, faith guarantees nothing except the will and energy to overcome despondency and fear, to live our lives to the full, to get back on your horse and drink your milk to get up after being knocked down like those people in the words of Theodore Roosevelt 'who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly.'

Not all of us are destined to achieve great things by the standards of the world, few of us are but perhaps the greatest goal is to try to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in faith hope and charity, to follow the teachings of a man who knew the importance of faith, a great teacher who talked of  'faith to move mountains' He said, "For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” 

May your life be a journey of faith.