Zebras and Harness Racers…..
In late summer of 2014 and for much of the next year I experienced a multitude of frustrations and confusion in attempting to connect with some individuals in ministry beyond my local community and church, I experienced a number of circumstances that left me feeling isolated and alone. I shared with several friends and pastors at the time that I felt like a zebra…….no longer really a lay person and not really yet clergy either……but rather some kind of “other” breed in pursuit of my role as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. At times I simply cried out to God and said, “Maybe I’m not in any herd. Maybe I’m not even a zebra, but just a pack mule or a jackass.”
Today, I came across a reference to zebras in something I was reading and began thinking about that analogy and my cries to God about how to fulfill what God has called me to do.
“Zebras are several species of African equids united by their distinctive black and white striped coats. Their stripes come in different patterns, unique to each individual. They are generally social animals that live in small harems to large herds. Unlike their closest relatives the horses and donkeys, zebras have never been truly domesticated……..Attempts have been made to train zebras for riding, since they have better resistance than horses to African diseases. Most of these attempts failed, though, due to the zebra’s more unpredictable nature and tendency to bolt under stress…….”
My efforts to “live into my calling” in ministry had been dismissed locally by some who reject women’s authority in ministry, by others who did not know me well and what my particular call to serve Christ in the world involved, and by some who find my personality to be consistent with their view of an “extra grace required” person (as described by Rev. Rick Warren in Purpose Driven Life). Those who have questioned my role in ministry generally are not the people whom God brings to me to serve. Rather, my call is to those who are broken by their spiritual, and usually also material, poverty, having lost sight of any path toward anything other than destruction……helping bring them back to a place of hope. So the opinion of others is not usually something that deters me or interferes with ministry at the fringes of society.
Living out ministry in the world identifying with a solitary displaced zebra was a lonesome existence, however. I prayed for God to give me something more compatible with my sense of self in relationship to others as a metaphor. Over the last couple of months several images have crossed my path. One, a large-rumped draught horse, made me smile. It was sort of like a poor man’s Clydesdale without the well-groomed hair and fancy prancing gaits. Another was a sad old grouchy and bedraggled pony that my Daddy traded something for and brought home as a surprise one day when I was in 4th grade. He built a pen for Buddy in our backyard. My siblings, the neighborhood kids and I would go out there and pet Buddy, feed him apple slices and other things, throw a blanket on his back and usually sit….. just sit. If pressed for a ride, Buddy would push us close against a fence post and try to scrape us off. He was not an enjoyable and accommodating companion animal, but we loved having him around anyway. After a couple of years Daddy put him out to pasture with a gentleman in town who let him have his own space with no annoying children to harass him. He died of old age a few years later.
The family of my husband’s grandfather, Budd Doble Langs, had been involved in harness racing in Canada in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Grandpa was named for the “most famous reinsman to ever sit in a harness racing sulky”, Budd Doble. I liked the imagery of a harness racer.
In reading about his life, I discovered that “Budd Doble enjoyed notoriety in racing several wonderful horses. But the one with which he is most associated was a mare named “Goldsmith Maid”, or just “The Maid” as she came to be known. She had run wild as a colt, and defied all attempts to break her, and at eight years was still untamed and described as “an accomplished runaway.”
At 8 she was purchased by Alden Goldsmith, who “found ways to make her amenable to discipline”, and he took her to the races beginning in 1865 at Goshen, N. Y. She won a purse racing simply as Goldsmith Mare. She came into the hands of Budd Doble 2 years later when she was sold but Budd did not get on well with her at first.
As one racing writer reported, “it would require a volume to rehearse the joint histories of Budd Doble and Goldsmith Maid during that ten-year period of their inseparable connection from 1867 to 1877”, until she was retired from the turf at the age of twenty. During those ten seasons “she won $364,200 in stake, purse and exhibition money, which at the time dwarfed all other records for earnings by any race horse, of any breed, in any country in the world.” In all of her many races, Budd was always behind her holding the reins except for one race.
Grandpa Budd Doble Langs was a slight, quiet, white haired, pink skinned, German-heritage octogenarian when I first met him in 1972. He always wore a hat when he went out the door due to his propensity to sunburn on his mostly- bald head. He moved slowly, smiled easily, was content to sit quietly and simply be. He had the thickest corrective lenses in his glasses I had ever seen and they made his lashless blue eyes look huge. Children were drawn to his gentle manner and he delighted in their attention and chatter. He died at 91 after a brief illness.
I can imagine him as a vigorous and congenial young man around the stables and tracks, hooking up sulkies and chatting with trainers, owners, stable boys, riders, and others equally well. Grandpa laughed easily, though his life had not always been easy. He and his wife, Grace Archibald Langs, lost their home and fortunes several times….in the depression, to a home fire at Lake Windsor, and to the vicissitudes of his wife’s alcohol abuse and emotional instability. Even so, something in Grandpa spoke to me of contentment and perseverance. I think he was probably a very good horseman, able to read and lead a spirited horse from behind quite well.
Maybe God has reminded me of Grandpa Langs, Budd Doble, and The Maid to remind me that it is not an equine analogy of myself that God wants me to see, but it is the gentle Guide who holds the reins that determines an animal’s value to its Owner.