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You need to hold on for dear life to win the prize

"Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:13-14

I was blessed to be raised the son of a true cowboy who watched his father wrestle, ride, and rope cattle nearly every weekend during the summer months of my youth. As you can imagine, being raised under the guidance and direction of such a man, you are directed down some very unique paths of manhood. I’m sure those of you raised in the cities had your own unique paths and lessons to wrestle with, but for those raised around and responsible for horses and cattle, you learn some pretty valuable "life lessons" and core teachings on common sense. A few of the obvious ones, which did not take a great deal of intelligence to grasp, was to never make a bull mad, always keep a stout fence between you and it, and never let your friends talk you into doing something stupid.

Now I’ve never been a big proponent of people who claim that they were somehow born with certain innate tendencies, removing the power and freedom of free will in order to choose a path that presents itself in life. However, cowboys could be a good test case for giving it credence. For some explainable reason, the sons (and even daughters) of cowboys seemed predestined at a moment in time to develop a inner desire and need to strap themselves on the back of an angry bull and setting aside the innate common sense teaching they grew up with of "never make a bull mad".

I can only describe it as a day in your life when the "cowboy gene" engages (or breaks depending upon how you view it), immediately severing or overriding the common senseand self preservation genes we were born with and instead, they head toward that fateful moment. Without explanation, even your friends seem to recognize the cowboy gene engaging within you and instead of warning you of the danger that you are stumbling toward, they encourage you to pursue it (apparently they had a similar gene break earlier in their lives). As you approach the angry bull, you see its eyes glazed over in rage, foam is coming from its mouth, and snot is flying from its nose as it tries to turn inside the metal cage or chute that is trying to hold it still for you. Instead of running for safety, you climb up the side of the metal cage and prepare to slide down onto its huge back.

If any of what I just described seems desirable or triggers a fond memory, then you may have that rare or hidden cowboy gene. However for me, that gene was apparently never written into my DNA code or if it was, it failed to trigger from all the processed foods I ate growing up. So imagine my surprise as a 12-year-old, to have my father suggest that it was time for me to take on the family tradition of riding bulls in an upcoming junior rodeo. As I stood there and stared at my proud and excited father, the only gene I could feel kicking in was my panic and fear gene. My cowboy gene never got the memo to activate.

The Two "Spiritual" Genes God Gives Us

I have had the incredible blessing of being the son of an amazing father, and the father of an amazing son and daughter. With that knowledge and experience, you learn that there are two ‘spiritual’ genes that can be stronger and more powerful than the fear gene, the panic gene, and even the cowboy gene. They are the trust my father and the please my father gene.

The strength of the trust my father gene is a direct result of how often your father was correct when he asked you to trust him in difficult or scary moments in life. I've learned that cowboy fathers are less gentle and more direct with the words they use with their sons. Instead of “I promise it won’t hurt” they tend to use words like “it won’t kill you” or “stop your whining and do as your told” to comfort and encourage you. You learn to read between the lines to find the love hidden within them. However, depending upon how you were raised, that trust gene can get a little tweaked or weakened along the way, which is why God also gave us the please my father gene just in case the trust one failed to activate.

Although the strong trust words used by a cowboy father can be a great motivator, I've learned that the please my father gene in their sons is much stronger. When it gets tough, cowboy son’s like to step up and prove they are made in their father’s image, overriding their fear or the lack of trust they might have.

So there I was staring down at the snotty nosed bull in the metal cage below me and who outweighed me by a factor of 10 and had deadly horns sticking out of its head. I was desperately waiting for the cowboy gene to show up and remove the fear and terror of the moment, but no luck. As I slid onto its back all I could hear was my common sense voice screaming and arguing about how stupid I was for not listening to it. If that was not enough, a group of older cowboys were there to "help you". Their help started off by wrapping a thick rope around the bull’s midsection, then taking that same rope and wrapping it around your hand several extra times with the intended goal of helping you to “stay on the back of the bull for as long as possible” (something that goes directly against all common sense). They then proceed to nullify that brief advantage by tightly wrapping another rope around the bull's flanks with the intended goal to make it buck harder out of anger. An anger that it now thinks is a direct result of you sitting on its back.

I was almost about to give in to the fear gene when I looked up and saw my father across from me. No words, just the nod of his head and that cowboy look that said I’ll be there to pick you up out of the dirt when it’s over. Just like that, the please my father gene kicked in and overrode all the other genes and common sense warnings. With a renewed confidence and courage, I nodded my head, the gate flew open and the ride was on.

Pleasing Our Heavenly Father

Much like a cowboy’s son, as Christians our trust in our heavenly father can often weaken or falter at difficult times. Does God realize how scared I am right now? Why is God making me go through this? There are so many questions that fly through our heads as we try to come up with reasons to climb off of the spiritual bull in our lives that we may find ourselves sitting on. All of the worldly common sense influences are yelling at us to get off before it’s too late, that this Christian walk and purpose we chose to follow is too radical, or crazy, or worse, is just a lie. Yet for some, and at just the right time, something deep inside activates and it tells us to look up at God, to listen to his Word and to sit back down and refocus on pleasing him. In doing so, we even start to trust in our nearby brothers and sisters who have ridden that same bull earlier in their lives, striving to do their best to “tie you on” as best as they can for they know will be the ride of your life (Matthew 28:20 “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”). We start to believe we can not only ride it the full 8 seconds to receive a score, but even enjoy the ride.

Many Christian riders either have not learned how to activate the please my father gene, or embrace the power of it. You can tell, because instead of striving to reach the 8 seconds of any challenge they face in life, they listen to the fear and doubt gene and immediately let go of the rope the moment the gate opens. They end up in the same place (the dirt), but with a far different response or attitude. Instead of trying to learn from each challenge (how to ride it better next time), they instead come up out of the dirt with the "There, I did it, are you happy now?" look toward their father. Christians whose desire to please their father is stronger than their fear and doubt approach that bull ride in life far differently. They grip the rope with all their might, squeeze their legs tight, clinch their teeth and hang on for dear life striving and praying to make it to the buzzer sound at the end of 8 seconds, not before.

When I look back on that first bull ride now, I don’t remember anything about the actual ride except hanging on with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. My single desire was not to try and stay on as long as possible to get a score, but to please my father who I knew would be waiting there for me when it was over (whether I made it the full 8 seconds or not). All I wanted to hear was “well done” son, disguised in a proud cowboy father’s words of, Itold you it wouldn’t kill you. When it was over, I remember standing up from the soft dirt of the arena, spitting a portion of it out of my mouth, as the rodeo clown handed me my crushed cowboy hat and patted me on the back. The bull was heading in one direction, while I was being led off in another toward my father who was smiling proudly on the other side of the arena. Then tears of joy and relief suddenly poured from my eyes, apparently another sign that my cowboy gene had failed to activate, but knowing full well that my please my father gene had been richly rewarded.

The Crown of Victory

What was amazing about that first bull ride is that in my effort to please my father, I had not only ridden the bull for the full 8 seconds needed to receive a score, I actually won the event! The following day, with my father standing by my side, we stepped forward and received the winners trophy (a cowboy buckle). The victory was not a result of my bull riding skill and expertise (I had none), but as a result of fighting to hang on those 8 long seconds with the hope of pleasing my father. I learned that day that the please my fathergene was actually more powerful and effective than any other spiritual gene and had a much more valuable reward at the end.

As Christians, we often think we need some special upbringing, education, or training to somehow make it through difficult times in our lives. But in truth, all you need to focus on is pleasing your father in heaven and the willingness to hang on for dear life during those difficult times. I think James said it best in James 1:12,

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

God has promised that your reward will be waiting for you at the end of each spiritual bull ride you face in life. Whether you make it the full 8 seconds on each ride does not matter. What does matter is whether or not you gave all your heart, mind, soul and strength in order to please your heavenly father. If you did, then at the end of the ride you will stand there covered in dirt, bruised and battered, exhausted and still shaking with adrenaline wondering where your crushed hat might be. You will look up to see your heavenly father waiting for you with a proud smile and you will hear him say, with perhaps a twang of a cowboy accent, “Well done” as he hands you a new golden cowboy hat.

Richard Hackett

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