Riding the Trail

I got into trail riding on a Sunday back in 1989 when I rode the second leg of the Salt Grass Trail. I met my buddy Stewart at Wittenberg Pasture near Cat Spring and we (along with almost 1500 others) rode to the Austin County fairgrounds in Bellville. It was like a giant cocktail party going down the road at about three miles per hour and I had a blast. In fact, I was hooked. I have ridden at least part of the Salt Grass every year but one since.

On those rides, I’ve met all sorts of people. Some are great riders seeking perfection in the saddle. Others are there for the party and seem to be learning the basics of riding as they go. Most are somewhere in between. Over the years, I’ve asked some of my trail-riding friends how they got into it. The answers vary but it seems like there are paths that lead to trail riding. Some are “quarter horse people” or “paint horse people” and a few ride gaited horses (Walkers or Paso Finos and such). Some are cutters or penners. Some are real cowboys. Some are living the old west dream. Some were born into families that trail ride. And some – like me – were brought into it by a friend who was already involved.

It is interesting to watch the interactions. Many of the newbies and party people slowly gain their “seat” on horseback and pick up skills – sometimes it seems as if by osmosis – as they become better balanced riders. And some of the very serious riders (such as the reiners and the jumpers) learn to loosen up, ride with one hand on the reins and the other on a beverage, and enjoy the party – becoming better balanced people – instead of just focusing on the riding.

When I was six, I was baptized at Tallowood Baptist Church. By third grade, my family was attending a non-denominational church called Berachah where I learned to pray. At age twelve, we had moved to the Methodist Church which is where I first encountered the creeds. In my early 20s, I studied Catholicism – but I just couldn’t get there. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I first stumbled into an Episcopal church. For me, each church has a distinct identity. The Baptist church is John 3:16. Berachah Church is First John 1:9. The Methodist church is “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord …” (the Apostles’ Creed). The Episcopal Church starts with “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen …” (The Nicene Creed). Each forms the essence of a different profession of faith and each incorporates elements of the other but none is complete. Nevertheless, each is an entry point to the same trail.

Having accepted each as a young person, I didn’t see the conflict of the different positions. As an adult, I see people dig in to say “I am a Catholic.” Or “I’m a Baptist.” Or “I am ‘high church.’” When the Church went from one Way to Catholic and Orthodox and Coptic and then to Anglican and Lutheran and Baptist and Church of Christ, the answer to “What is your faith?” changed from “Christian” to “Methodist” or “Presbyterian”, etc. Christianity became competitive, even combative, and different denominations or factions became symbols of cultural and class identity. While this fragmentation is a series of wounds to be healed as the body of Christ expands, the Church is still one body. God’s grace is intrinsic even in the midst of discord.

Regardless of how many splits there are creating all these branches of Christianity, they all ultimately lead onto one trail. Maybe we enter that trail through the camp of the Episcopal Church or maybe through the camp of the Baptist Church. Maybe our first profession of faith is a recitation of the Nicene Creed as part of a confirmation service or maybe it was the answer to an altar call at a tent revival. Does it really matter? A distressed Saint Paul wrote to the fledgling church in Corinth saying “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (I Corinthians 1:12-13). Saint Paul points out that it doesn’t matter who originally brought them into the fold – they all were baptized into the name of Christ.

Likewise, it doesn’t really matter if a profession of faith is an “I do” uttered in a Baptist church when asked “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and that He died on the cross to save sinners? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Or whether that profession of faith is the words of the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds. Both are starting points that lead onto the same trail. It doesn’t matter which camp you start from, the key is to understand that the profession of faith is a start – not the actual trail. The acceptance of Jesus Christ as God become man and the acceptance of the detail of belief found in the creeds both are starting points where the trail begins. As we walk down the aisle for the altar call or to take our first communion, all we’re doing is throwing a leg over to get on the horse. Once we’re on, we still have to get down the trail.

While there are many starting points, these two cover a lot of territory. One starts with accepting that Jesus is the Son of God and that He offered Himself as a sacrifice so that all men might be saved. The other starts with a series of questions (a catechism) based on the creeds. The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are in large part recitations of that catechism. While these may seem to be very different positions, both acknowledge the same God and the same Lord and both spring from the same set of facts presented in the same Bible.

John 3:16 Christianity begins with the experience of Christ as a personality in the life of the believer. For some, this experience is sudden and shocking. It can be like meeting someone new and quickly falling in love. You love the new person even as you get to know them. They thrill you and please you but if you really think about it, there is a lot you don’t know about them. As with new love, this sudden personal discovery of Jesus often produces a strong passion. That passion manifests itself in wanting to talk about and share what the new lover / new believer has found. It can result in evangelism. But ultimately, like learning to know a new lover and having that thrill and infatuation mature into real love, the new believer must begin to learn about this Christ.

Creedal Christianity may begin with Sunday School instruction or a teenage confirmation class. Jesus may be a picture on the wall. Faith comes gradually. Jesus doesn’t explode into the creedal (sometimes cradle) Christian’s life with fireworks and hot passion. Instead, it is more a gradual dawning that He, like a favorite uncle or grandfather, has always been there. The systematic learning built around the catechism built around the creeds is more precise (if not as passionate) but is, at least initially, less comprehensible. What does all that stuff in the creeds really mean? The communion of Saints? The resurrection of the body? Realizing that I did not understand all this, I declined confirmation in the Methodist Church as a teenager. While in college, I took the Methodist confirmation class again and this time accepted confirmation. Confirmation was not a completion but a beginning.

During my first steps down the trail, I had to learn to accept other peoples’ starting points and then to learn that I could learn from them. As an adult creedal Christian, I had to relearn the personal relationship with Christ I had accepted and professed as a first grader. At the same time, I see “John 3:16 Christians” on the trail learning the richness of the faith that I see in the creeds.

Some of the joy of it all is meeting and learning from others who are going down the same trail. We learn from each other the things that our own start may have left out. The believers I learn from the most are those Creedal Christians who have developed a personal relationship with Christ and the John 3:16 Christians who’ve kept their personal relationship while adding the richness of long tradition to go with it. These are the “better balanced” Christians … and some of the best companions on the trail.

– Charles M. Bear Dalton


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