I just returned home from riding my bike nine hundred and forty miles from Brandon, South Dakota to Port Clinton, Ohio. I was riding with three other people to raise awareness of The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign. In cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation and the Global Fund to end AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, our denomination has committed to raising $75 million to eradicate malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past twelve days, I’ve learned a thing or two about the spiritual life from my bike seat, which is now my good friend but can also be a bit uncomfortable when riding long distances. First, a few general observations about cycling.
- Helmet hair happens. Deal with it.
- Unique tan lines form on your body. Why not flaunt it as a fashion statement?
- There are tricks of the trade to alleviate seat discomfort. Desitin isn’t just for babies.
- Clean your chain, keep your tires properly inflated, and pray that you don’t get a flat tire. Even if you can change one, a flat tire in the middle of nowhere is not fun.
- Get used to bruises, cuts and scrapes. Owies go with the territory.
- Earphones are no-no. Listen to the music of creation. Besides, it is important to be aware of everything going on around you.
- Swallowing flies or even bees is inevitable in long-distance biking. Beware the ones that that you can’t spit out because they fly right down your throat.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative about bathroom breaks. A tree or ditch is less disgusting than many restrooms in gas stations.
- Potholes don’t just ruin cars. Watch out!
- Carry enough food and liquids. Clif Bars and Gatorade are your friends.
- The agony of intense effort is nothing compared to the agony of families in Sub-Saharan Africa, where every sixty seconds a loved one dies of malaria.
Of course, I’ve also learned a thing or two about spirituality and the church from dozens of hours on the bike seat.
1. Open doors really do demonstrate Christ’s love.
On day three of our ride, we stopped in the small town of Terrill, Iowa for a bathroom break, and all we could find was the United Methodist Church. The door was open, but no one was in the building. So we used the restrooms, checked out the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and left a note of thanks for their hospitality. Open minds, open hearts, open doors.
2. Vacation Bible School Rocks.
Almost every church that hosted us was having Vacation Bible School or a kids summer camp that week or in the near future, including Celebration UMC in Brandon, South Dakota, Forest City UMC and Charles City Trinity UMC in Iowa, Grace UMC in Naperville, Illinois, Lowell First UMC in Indiana, and Niles Wesley UMC in Michigan. In every case I sensed Holy Spirit energy from the excitement of both adults and children as Jesus showed up big time in these congregations through VBS. VBS is alive and well and changes children’s lives.
3. There is great power in our connectional system.
According to Pastor Rob Nystrom, organizer of the INM Ride for Change, it was easy to secure churches to host us, for we are all part of the United Methodist family. As United Methodists we are connected with each other all over the world. Everyone was glad to help, especially when they learned that this was a fundraiser for Imagine No Malaria, a project with which most of them were already familiar. Our host families went out of their way to make us comfortable.
4. Navigating is a spiritual discipline.
Rob and Wayne Bank worked on the initial route across the country, but Zach Frid was our driver/navigator en route. Unlike the early settlers who moved west without a clue what they would encounter along the way, technology takes much of the surprise out of traveling today. Cell phones can tell us exactly where we are at any moment and show us precise topographical features and weather systems that lie ahead. They can also reconnect cyclists when we become separated from our sag vehicles or from each other.
Still, technology could not always predict whether there was a shoulder along the highway or whether a road was paved or gravel. We couldn’t always tell where detours were, which roads were flooded, how well traveled roads were or whether numerous potholes would force us to turn around and go another way. Even the weather apps could not guarantee that a storm would not suddenly move in a different direction and drench us.
So navigation in our personal lives and in the church is much more than simply getting from here to there. It’s one of life’s most profound challenges. Finding our way is how new worlds are discovered, barriers between people are broken down and God’s kingdom breaks into our everyday life.
5. It’s always something, so improvise and adapt.
On Day Three we were riding from Spirit Lake, Iowa into a fierce and unusual east wind all morning. Despite expending a lot of energy, we only covered thirty-one miles. At a break Chad Jennings said, “Since the wind is so strong today, and we don’t want to ride all eighty-seven miles into that wind, what if we rethink the route? Why don’t we ride the other direction so that we’re going with the wind?” So that’s what we did.
We loaded the bikes into the vans and drove the next thirty-five miles east along our route. Then we rode those same thirty-five miles on our bikes back west along the same route. Finally, we piled into the vans once more and drove the route a third time to return to the sixty-six mile mark. If that wasn’t enough, we did the exact same thing with the last twenty-one miles in order to reach Forest City.
What a perfect example of adaptive leadership. Every day you and I face choices about how we are going to live, and we have to make adjustments on the fly. It’s the same with the church. Every night on our ride, I would ask my host family variations of these questions, “How are you known in the community? What is God doing in your congregation to make a difference in your context and the world?
The answers were always fascinating as well as telling. Many of the churches were doing amazing ministry by thinking outside the box, willing to do whatever it takes to change old patterns of thinking and acting and creatively share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.
A few times, however, I heard laments like, “We don’t have a vision for where we are going. We’re stalled right now. We don’t know how to reverse the decline.” Churches that learn improvisation as a way of life usually flourish.
6. As long as we are headed in the same direction, we’re usually fine.
Those who ride have different personalities as well as abilities. Thus, we have to learn to dance together in order to be a team. At times it is important to be close for safety, like riding on busy highways or through a town. Other times, when climbing hills or hitting a long straightaway, we go separately because we each have our own rhythm, leg strength and pace. Knowing that the sag vehicles are always in front and back keeps us connected. In the same way, in the church we need to give each other freedom to discover and use our unique gifts for ministry. At the same time, it’s our vision, mission and shared goals that keep us moving in the same direction.
7. The Holy Spirit is not always a head wind.
We learned very quickly that riding with the wind gave us an enormous energy boost while riding against the wind quickly sapped our strength. It could mean the difference between riding at twenty-three miles an hour or thirteen miles an hour. The most obvious and tidy analogy is that when we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the road through life is always with the wind: smooth and trouble-free. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to ride with a headwind where God’s intentions for our lives are clear.
On the other hand, the spiritual life reminds us that the Holy Spirit can also be a tail wind, leading us into situations that are challenging and might even prompt us to fail. A mature faith realizes that it is only through testing, rough pavement and even failure that we grow into the fullness of the Christian life and learn to trust even when the wind is in our face.
I’ll be getting on my skinny little seat again real soon because I love to ride my bike. Every time I do, my seat reminds me that the Christian life is not always comfortable, but it will inevitably lead me home to God.