The Understanding of a Mule

Last week I came across these verses in my daily Bible reading (Psalm 32):

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

It made me think about those old Louis L’Amour westerns I sometimes enjoy, in which the main character (invariably a cowboy) usually has a well-trained horse that responds to the subtlest nudges with the knee. It will often come when he calls it (or will stand where he leaves it) without needing to be tied. Sometimes the hero of the story is wounded and the horse carries him out of danger. Apparently that is mostly fiction; horses and mules are generally ‘without understanding’ unless highly trained and/or unusually loyal.

Nearly all Louis L'Amour books have a horse on the front cover.

Nearly all Louis L’Amour books have a horse on the front cover.

I’m always worried, whenever I go to the dentist, that they will put one of those rubber wedges in my mouth to ‘help me keep my mouth open’. This is dentist code for: “You’re not opening far enough, so we’re going to force your mouth open even if it feels like we’re dislocating your jaw.” In my experience, it is a lot more pleasant to voluntarily open my mouth than to have it forced to stay open, because you can rest your jaw when they take a break. I bet it is like that for a horse bridle and bit, too.

Not my actual mouth or dentist.

Not my actual mouth or dentist.

So God allows us this liberty. We can obey Him and do His will voluntarily, or we can be tied to a post with a bit in our mouth, because we don’t have the understanding necessary to obey the Master willingly.

Sometimes I have the understanding of a mule, and I must be handled with a bit or a bridle. On my better days, I am more like that fictional horse, who loves and obeys his Master and comes when he calls. It is interesting to note that either way, as a follower of Christ, I am a beast of burden, and either way, I end up doing the will of the Master. But I think it is significantly more pleasant to not be tied to a post or have a metal bit in my mouth.

Jesus said to His disciples:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing;
but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

So the next time you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in your heart or mind, have better understanding than a mule, and cooperate willingly and creatively.


Share or follow

Related posts:

Civil Liberty

As an American citizen, I enjoy certain freedoms that have been baked into our government structure. Although I don’t always feel as free as I would like, for the most part, I enjoy the following civil liberties:

  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of speech
  • Free exercise of religion
  • Equal treatment under the law
  • Right to life
  • Right to due process
  • Right to privacy — specifically, the right to be secure in my person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures
  • Freedom of expression

Indeed, I’m using that last freedom at the present moment. It is a considerable joy and privilege to live under a government that, for the most part, allows me to live in a state of considerable liberty. I am aware that many people have no such liberty, and I am grateful for what I have been granted.

Several months ago, I decided to build a deck behind my house, using some of the Trex boards that were left over from the front porch renovation project I finished just before Rachel and Tim’s wedding. Admittedly, the back deck will be much larger than what would be needed to use up those boards, but I subscribe to the ‘go big, or go home’ architectural school of deck building.

When I extended the front porch, I researched the local building codes, and determined that a permit was not required, since the additional area was less than 120 square feet, and the deck was less than 30″ off the ground.

I was acutely embarrassed to have this affixed to the front of my house.

I was acutely embarrassed to have this affixed to the front of my house.

Imagine my surprise and dismay when I received a stop work order from the city, threatening me with fines and demanding I procure a permit. After a sleepless night and a consult with the permit office, I submitted the required drawings, paid my fee, and received my permit. The inspectors were gracious, and (with considerable help from some friends) I finished the project. The front porch adorns our house and provides a delightful space to sit outside.

The finished front porch has really improved the 'curb appeal' of our house.

The finished front porch has really improved the ‘curb appeal’ of our house.

This time, I asked the City permit office people if I needed a permit BEFORE I started on the project. It is a firm belief of mine that there is no known historical record of any city building authority on the planet ever admitting that a person does not need a permit, and my experience did nothing to dispel that belief. “Yes, you need a permit,” they told me, “because the structure is more than 120 square feet, and because it affects the egress [sic] of your home.” I have to admit the truth of the first part — I do plan to build a large deck. In the words of my friend, Dan, “It’s the size of New Jersey!” I firmly reject the question of waterfowl, however. We have rabbits, cats, deer, occasional raccoons, but no egrets whatsoever.

I'm sure I would have noticed if a bunch of these birds were hanging around my house.

I’m sure I would have noticed if a bunch of these birds were hanging around my house.

So I began filling out the forms and started planning the deck, based on the packet the building department gave me. I first communicated with them on April 16, and email questions flew back and forth for the next two months. Finally, after hours of drawing and painstaking form completion, I proudly submitted my permit application on June 26. It was rejected on grounds that I failed to adequately describe the ‘prescriptive codes’ associated with each element of my plan. I resubmitted on July 20 after many more hours of re-drawing my plans. It was rejected again, on the same grounds.

Finally, I researched the 2018 International Residential Code which has apparently been adopted by my city (and, indeed, most of the United States). Imagine my surprise to discover that the supporting structure which I had used for my front porch expansion just a few years earlier was entirely obsolete, and the new requirements for a deck are similar to those you would expect for an actual house. So I spent many more hours adding prescriptive code tables to my drawings, and resubmitted on July 23.

This time, the permit application was grudgingly accepted as ‘minimally acceptable’ and a portion of the fee was accepted from me. Tomorrow marks the one-month anniversary of that blessed event, and still I have no permit. The lumber I purchased to build the supporting structure warps quietly on my patio. The two dozen holes I dug for the footings gradually crumble and fill. Yet I hold off on building this deck, submitting to the government’s control and waiting patiently for them to approve (or disapprove) my permit application, as the optimal building season slowly slips away.

A lot of people have asked me, “Tim, why get a permit? The deck is behind your house, how will the City ever know? Why pay more than $1000 for a permit when you can just build it and no one will care?”

I am waiting for the permit for two reasons:

  1. I believe it is right for me to submit to the lawful control of the government in this case. I don’t like it, and I wish I lived somewhere that allowed homeowners more latitude in improving their property, but the State of Washington has many such laws designed to protect the citizens from each other, and it doesn’t violate any of my foundational liberties. In a time when the right to life is denied to unborn children, and the right to privacy is being radically redefined by multinational corporations, I think a minor bureaucratic overreach is the least of my worries.
  2. If I don’t submit to the government, I will almost certainly be caught. I have found that God keeps me on a really short leash in these kind of things (which is a huge blessing, when you think about it).

As far as I know, my local building permit office doesn’t dispatch people to drive around looking for permit violators. I live on a double-ended cul-de-sac, which means we get almost zero pass-through traffic. It seems likely that someone on my street must have called in and reported the work I was doing on my front porch. I suspect that the same unknown person, whether an enemy or simply a busybody, would call in this work as well. As a Christian, I am held to a higher standard by God than ‘normal’ non-believers, especially since He knows that I really struggle to submit to authority. I am a slow learner, but I eventually do pick up on these things.

One of the things that really DOES get me riled up is when the government overreaches in their control of the Church. The current situation in Washington is that our Governor has placed severe restrictions on the exercise of religion here, under the guise of attempting to protect people from the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the State does not have the authority to abridge the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as stated in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

And of course, the part of the law that protects our liberty to freely exercise religion is found in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don’t think you have to be a legal scholar to see that the Governor has overreached State authority and is actively infringing on the First Amendment rights of citizens to assemble and to freely exercise religion. With his proscriptions against churches meeting indoors, against churches meeting as a complete body, and against praising God without being muffled by masks, our Governor has placed himself in opposition to the first and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution, and it is the right and responsibility of citizens to resist and peacefully disobey his illegal edicts. Indeed, the President has pledged the resources of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General to defend these rights from encroachment.

Do I think that COVID-19 is contagious? Yes. Do I think the Church should make an effort to protect its vulnerable from this disease? Yes.

Do I think the Lord is honored when we meekly submit to draconian efforts to quarantine an entire country, disobeying His instructions ‘to meet together’ (Hebrews 10:25)? No, I don’t think He is honored by this cowardly behavior.

In the United States, you have about a 1 in 1875 chance of dying from COVID-19 this year, assuming you accept the statistics that have been published (I don’t, but more on that in a later post). As a frame of reference, you are thirty-four times more likely to get into a significant auto accident than you are to die from COVID this year. Of course, if you are young or healthy, or don’t live in a nursing home, the odds go way down. In my opinion, attempting to prevent COVID deaths by closing churches is like requiring everyone to move around in wheelchairs for fear that someone might be injured by falling. But even if there was a direct cause and effect relationship between going to church and dying of COVID, I would still advocate church attendance. People all over the world, throughout history, have risked their lives to obey God; why should Americans be coddled in 2020?

It is a delicate subject. People have over-reacted, whether in buying up toilet paper or cowering in their homes for months on end. And there are certainly some who have foolishly and callously disregarded the vulnerabilities of others.

My local grocery store bread aisle, in response to a simple snow storm in 2019.

My local grocery store bread aisle, in response to a simple snow storm in 2019.

Many medical professionals advocate the ‘social distancing’ restrictions and use of masks out of abundance of care for the vulnerable, and some will take offense at my words in this post. But I would make these three final points:

  1. After all these months, we still know very little about how this disease spreads, what the effective death rate is, how best to treat it, or if immunity can be achieved. It is very presumptuous for anyone to make dogmatic claims of one treatment or prevention technique, claiming that ‘science’ backs them up. Truth is, you can find ‘science’ in the form of statistics and clinical trials on every side of this argument.
  2. There is a huge, not yet fully-realized cost to these massive attempts to quarantine the healthy. Suicide numbers (which are typically about 1/4 the number of COVID deaths this year) are on the rise. Child abuse reports have ominously dropped, while alcohol consumption has skyrocketed. Needed critical medical procedures have been delayed or canceled, even though we lose eight times more people to heart disease and cancer than we have to COVID, every year. Considering the long-term correlation between economic status and health, it seems likely that more lives will be needlessly lost or curtailed to our misguided quarantining efforts than will actually be lost to COVID.
  3. God’s word requires all true believers to gather together as His Church, and requires us to praise Him loudly and joyfully. Whatever the cost, I believe I must obey God, rather than men.


Share or follow

Related posts:

Empty Nest

Twenty-eight years ago, Kathy and I were married in Michigan. The ceremony was witnessed by some 400 assembled family and friends in the church Kathy’s father had helped to start. Having been graduated from college just two weeks prior, we excitedly embarked on our career as a married couple. Blessed with a pregnancy in less than a year, we welcomed our first-born to the planet before we had been married 17 months.

It has been a pretty good ride since then. Joshua was soon followed by Rachel, then Daniel, all pretty close together. A four year gap was broken by David, with Sarah closely on his heels. I think we both thought that five kids was a pretty good return on ten years of wedded bliss.

Five kids on the deck of the Duckabush House

Five kids on the deck of the Duckabush House

In many ways, being parents of five children has defined the two of us for the last several decades, especially as we chose to home-school each of them through early high school. I think the ‘achievement’ I am proudest of in my life so far has been to be the Dad of these five fun, mature, godly and rather quirky humans.

So now what? All five are grown. All five are out of the house, making their way with the gifts and opportunities that God has granted. All five are walking with the Lord, honoring Him with their choices and with their hearts. I feel diminished, as if I was a DVD player — still occasionally needed and useful, but only when people still watch DVDs in this world of streaming services.

Now Kathy and I sit alone in the airport, reading our books or playing on our phones.

Now Kathy and I sit alone in the airport, reading our books or playing on our phones.

About four months after Sarah was born, my boss called me to his office. Sitting with him was a grim-faced woman from Human Resources, who slid a large folder across the desk toward me, as though she didn’t want to contract whatever disease I was carrying.

“Tim,” my boss told me, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.” He had the grace to look as though he actually was sorry.

I was devastated. I had known our division was facing a 25% cut in personnel, but I had confidently estimated my position on the team as reasonably safe. I felt as though I had been punched in the solar plexus, all the air knocked out of me. I numbly accepted my severance packet and scurried back to my office, where I closed the door and sobbed.

In some ways, becoming an empty-nester has been similar. Even though I saw it coming, I somehow didn’t expect it to touch me. I feel as though I was laid off from my position of being a Dad.

Family dinners are much harder to arrange, with my children in Louisiana, Tennessee and Idaho.

Family dinners are much harder to arrange, with my children in Louisiana, Tennessee and Idaho.

Sure, my kids still need me in their lives. Sure, I have love and wisdom and comfort and provision to lavish on them as they move into their early adult years, finishing college, getting married, starting careers, and building families of their own. But it isn’t the same.

Yesterday, Kathy and I made a list of our goals, as we look to re-inventing ourselves in the vacuum of an absent family. We created a daily/weekly checklist and started a gentle competition to see which of us can be more purposeful as we take advantage of this new phase of our lives. We are hopeful that we can (even at this near-geriatric age) make a new start in becoming the disciplined, godly people we have always wanted to be.

This morning, I met with my ‘boys’ (the ones I’ve prayed with on Wednesdays for the past 15 years or so) and I told them how I felt about being an empty-nester.

“You could always try foster care,” one of them suggested, pointedly.

This evening, as we were praying for our children, Kathy made a comment to the Lord that I was apparently supposed to overhear: “Lord, please let us know if you want us to foster kittens, like Rachel and Tim.” (Rachel and Tim are the foster-humans for a seemingly unending stream of kittens who reside in their home while they wait to be placed in their permanent homes.)

Interestingly, the name of my middle school was Stephen Foster. It is clearly a sign.

In the meantime, the competition rages on. I’m winning at the moment, 20 to 16. But Kathy says, “There’s still time. It isn’t midnight!”

Share or follow

Related posts:

Sarah Goes to College

When we first moved to this house in Lakewood, Sarah was two years old. I remember her curling up on one of the empty shelves on a bookshelf as we were moving in — a little nook just her size. Now she is 18, and my youngest daughter lives in a dormitory at a college some 2000 miles away.

Sarah always loved finding little 'nooks' in which to relax while we moved from the Duckabush to the 'big city'.

Sarah always loved finding little ‘nooks’ in which to relax while we moved from the Duckabush to the ‘big city’.

As the ‘baby’ of the family, Sarah has had ample opportunity to watch her older siblings leave the nest, and has grown in grace and in maturity far beyond her years. Just seventeen months younger than her brother Dave, she has always been his special ‘buddy’, but has also worked hard to forge and maintain deeper relationships with each of her brothers and with her sister. Like many teenagers, she has the capacity to sleep past noon. She loves coffee and creates colorful beauty wherever she goes. She fills our house with snarky comments, laughter, joy and singing. She listens to us carefully with a teachable spirit, while still not missing a chance to quote us in our silliness, like the time Kathy told me, “Tim, you’re the worst!” I can’t decide which I’ll miss most: the piano playing and singing, or perhaps the teasing and clever wit, now that she is away at school.


Sarah chose Union University, a Baptist-affiliated Christian college in West Tennessee. She received a generous scholarship, and has been working hard to raise the additional money needed to cover tuition, books, room and board. On Friday, we moved her into her tiny dorm room, and attended ‘crying chapel’ with her as we committed her as a young adult into the hands of God. We are so excited for her, and look forward with great joy to see what God will do in her and through her in these next years.


Rachel and Tim were able to join us in celebrating Sarah, driving 7 hours from Louisiana, and Daniel and David (who live there in Jackson, TN) were also very present in shopping and assembling dorm furniture, carrying suitcases, and generally making much of Sarah’s first day on campus. It seemed right and fitting, since Sarah has been there for many of her older siblings, as they have launched into their college years. Even cousin Rebecca and dear friends Karis and Jeremiah were able to join in the fun.


It was especially sweet to gather in Sarah’s dorm room on Saturday night to pray for her and to say our goodbyes. We were supposed to have left campus on Friday, but gave ourselves an extra day since we live so far away. I’m sure she was both grieved and relieved to have us finally depart.



Sarah is a deeply compassionate person, loyal and kind. She is also an excellent student, and very bright. I’m not very worried about her doing well in college because of the solid patterns of study and excellence she has laid down for herself as a home-schooler and in the Running Start program at a local community college. But she is also sometimes reserved and can take time to form deep friendships, so we are praying especially for her relationships with her roommates and classmates. She chose to join the Honors program, and we have high hopes that the Honors community will welcome and befriend her, in addition to the friends she makes through other classes and activities.

It is hard to believe Sarah is not my 'little muffin' anymore.

It is hard to believe Sarah is not my ‘little muffin’ anymore.

We are so proud of Sarah, and honor the godly young woman she has become. As she reinvents herself in these formative college years, we are confident that she will remain rooted in the tradition and legacy of our family and of the family of our God. Maybe she’ll call her old ‘Pa’ sometime this week and laughingly quote, “Dad, you’re the worst!”


Share or follow

Related posts: