This is something i wrote about two and a half years ago. I revised it recently and Heather suggested that i post it here for all to read. So here it is for your viewing pleasure.
I like milking. Actually, i love milking. If you’ve ever milked a cow—by hand—you will know that it is no quick task; it takes time. During that time you can do one of two things. You can either a) think about nothing, or b) think about the spiritual significance of what you are doing. While i do a lot of the former, i’d like to share some of the thoughts i’ve had as they relate to spiritual discipline.
When one finds a suitable rhythm to prayer time, it can be a long and enjoyable activity. Teaching our body or soul new routines requires the same two ingredients: time and patience.
First of all, milking should be done at set times. Here we milk around 6 or 7 AM and about 5:30 PM. Making a commitment to a routine is important. In the past, it has been hard to get up in the morning or pull away from an evening activity, and more recently—as i’ve been a more sporadic milker—it’s sometimes been hard to remember that i’m the milker that day. But if we want Rhoda to be healthy, we
must milk her at regular times. I think the same sort of thing happens when we decide we will only pray, or read the Bible, or any other discipline whenever we feel like it. Eventually our relationship with God suffers. To make a commitment to make space in our days—as we do at Jubilee—helps our relationship with God.
When i first started milking Rhoda almost three years ago, it took a very long time and it felt very long as well. My hands were not used to the movements of milking; i fumbled and bumbled in a struggle to complete the task. Russ, my milking mentor, encouraged me to focus more on rhythm than speed; to get the movements down and then try to speed up. Now when i milk it doesn’t take quite as long, but more importantly it doesn’t feel as long. I have found a rhythm that works for me and by the time i’m done it feels like only a few minutes have passed. When one finds a suitable rhythm to prayer time, it can be a long and enjoyable activity. Teaching our body or soul new routines requires the same two ingredients: time and patience.
Milking a cow by hand can often be a test of patience as well. Sometimes, when the weather is hot and the flies are out, Rhoda can kick and fidget a lot, though i’m told she hasn’t kicked the bucket for at least a year. Sometimes when i let her into the corral, she doesn’t go straight into the milking stall, but will do something unexpected, like walk up beside the stall to the trough of greens and start eating them from there, catching me completely off guard. Now metaphors aren’t perfect. God doesn’t so much kick or fidget, but often God’s timeline can be a lot longer than what we’d like. When Rhoda is moving around a lot, it is tempting to yell or swear at her, just as it is tempting to rush God into answering us. Ultimately, i must wait for Rhoda to calm down, just as we must learn to abide by God’s schedule, rather than expecting God to abide by ours. Also, God often will answer us in very unexpected ways, sometimes even in ways we feel might not actually be an answer. It is a cliché but we should remember to expect the unexpected and learn to be flexible with the answers God gives us.
With milking, as with spiritual discipline, it is easy to get distracted by surface concerns. For example, when i first started milking Russ said that once a good rhythm was established i would be able to get a nice foam on the top of the milk. I became obsessively preoccupied with this for a while, becoming discouraged when i would get a little foam only to lose it when my rhythm went off. I soon came to the realization that this was not something to get so distraught about. The important thing is that Rhoda is being milked and is therefore healthy. It is the same for me with prayer. I find easy to get caught up in the trappings of the spiritual life—candles, icons and the like—and let the most important aspect, the discipline itself, fall to the wayside.
Many of these insights first struck me about two and a half years ago, but one more recent thought was that it can be easy to become very focused on the task of milking and miss out on the atmosphere surrounding the experience. On days when i’m inside a lot of the day, having the chance to sit outside for about thirty minutes and take in the beauty of God’s creation around me—from the birds flitting about to the kids on bicycles laughing as they speed to and fro—is much needed to renew my body, mind, and soul. Sometimes prayer or reading scripture can feel like a chore; something we must do. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in the journey—even if our path gets a bit windy—i believe God is there with us encouraging us to enjoy the ride as much as we try to reach our destination.