Don’t know why I’m so fast when I’m in the lead
Is it pride or is it purely greed?
For I’ve got a time to set,
‘Cause my brother made a bet
So 25 per hour will be my speed
—Brian Kerley, Ode to Saturday Biking, October 2017
I get suspicious when I hear people say, “I am humbled.” In most cases, what the speaker really means by their words isn’t humility at all. He or she has usually received some honour or compliment, and this has become culturally accepted language for a sentiment that we are less comfortable saying for ourselves or celebrating in others: I am proud.
So, rather than the tinny ring of false modesty, I am going to boldly state that I am proud of myself. I rode a 50-km bike ride for refugee sponsorship in two hours. I shaved more than an hour off my time from the previous year. To me it was the completion of an epic Hero’s Quest.
Like most archetypal heroes, it was a mixture of folly and unknowing that got me into this particular quest in the first place. And it was a variety of helpers and gifts that saw me to the finish line in record time. I bought a bike from my friend Brian last year and slowly added to my arsenal other items that would help speed up the ride, including clip-in shoes, riding gloves and a really good padded short. Brian and I trained on Saturday mornings as weather and schedules allowed. He pushed me well outside of my bike riding comfort zone, and last spring suggested that I should aim to ride the 50km Ride for Refuge in under two hours. I began to shoot my mouth off to family and friends I was asking to sponsor me. It was my brother who threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to put some muscle behind my words. He agreed to sponsor me an extra $100 if I could make good on my bragging. I had never actually managed to ride 50 km before while keeping my average speed above 25 km per hour. Even with very little reason to think I could succeed, I continued to blab to all of the other participants about my two hour goal.
It was the helpers along the way who saw me through. Brian and I fell into pedal with a retired firefighter, Martin, who said to me out of the corner of his mouth as we were riding along, “I heard about your goal, and I’m going to help you meet it. Just stick with me.” With Martin acting as “Domestique”—pointing out rough patches in the road and signalling turns—and with Brian talking me through the tough parts and spurring me on to make up time when the road was flat and the wind was at our back, we kept our pace. When I was getting tired and the wind was strong, they encouraged me to ride in their draft and recuperate (which would have helped more if I could get past the psychological barrier of trust needed to ride at such speeds so close to the person in front of me). When we cycled over the finish line, my elation was shared.
There is something of the hero quest that winds its way through the witness of Scripture. We meet in a variety of key biblical characters unlikely people who find themselves lined up for impossible tasks. Quiet Noah has to build an arc and save a cross section of God’s creation; tiny David must fight Goliath and assume the crown of Israel; enslaved Esther must assert her voice and save her people. Nobody-from-nowhere Jesus must inaugurate the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus adopts some important pieces of that hero quest in his life and witness. When he comes on the scene with his improbable proclamation, “The kingdom of God is drawing near,” he immediately backs that up by drawing together companions. Whether it is a cup of cool water, a sit-down feast, or an extravagant offering of perfumed ointment, he accepts and honours the gifts he receives from the friends he meets along the way. He binds his followers to one another and makes it clear that faith cannot be gone alone. His teaching becomes known as “The Way,” with the metaphor of the journey a key descriptor for Christian living ever since.
The hero quest breaks down entirely, however, when triumph and finish lines become part of the conversation. St. Paul might be the author who talks about running (not biking, unfortunately) with perseverance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1), although he doesn’t claim that he has reached the finish line, or that there is a finish line to be reached at all. Again and again, he names his only source of pride as the humiliation and suffering of Jesus’ cross. The Christian “goal,” according to our biblical witness, is to allow our weakness to become a vehicle of God’s mercy and compassion here and now; the only triumph is in surrendering our lives wholly and completely into the hands of God.
In fact, the greatest life lesson for me in this bike ride has little to do with racing over a finish line. The life of faith is more like the hours of practice that happen before the race. It’s going out when you’re not feeling well, when the weather is uninviting and when progress seems to be happening in fits and starts, if at all. It’s the little knots of problems that get unwound through the long hours on the road – showing up, putting in the time and discovering that God’s faithful companionship is real and you never have to figure it all out alone. It’s the way that muscles do slowly and mysteriously develop and comfort and confidence gradually does seep in, and all of this allows you to notice more about how you are blessed. It’s real humility — the kind that doesn’t need to be said to anyone and can’t be faked — that must also go with these muscles and confidence because it is such a small strip of rubber that separates you from spilling across the road at any moment, and your life on the road remains precarious every kilometre of the way.
Those hours on the bike provide a metaphor for the life of the church. God reveals and promises the possibility of extraordinary change: replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, transforming our instinct for self-preservation with an instinct instead for God’s love. This change is God’s responsibility and rests in God’s power. But we put ourselves in service of that change, we allow God to build those new muscles in us, by showing up willing to practice.
When we are willing to do that, there are undoubtedly going to be moments of glory and triumph: when prayer is clearly powerful, when our songs of praise lift us up to another plane, when Christian friendship is beautiful and true and surprising, when great feats of feeding, advocacy, sponsorship, refuge and sanctuary are accomplished through really rather ordinary human beings.
But a lot of the joy and freedom of Christian living is discovered in those ordinary hours putting in the time on the road, in all sorts of weather and often with no apparent signs of progress. That’s where we get better at recognizing God quietly drawing close, that’s where we meet God’s helpers and messengers offering a hand or true word, that’s where it can begin to dawn on us that finally we live and die by God’s word, and that’s where we get to experience how small we really are and feel some power other than our own working in us.