Day 3 of my bike trip: starting out in Phillipsburg, NJ, heading east, hoping to make it as far as Morristown, NJ, but not really sure what the day ahead looks like — which roads to use on a bicycle or how many or how high the hills ahead of me are. But I”ve ended up on state highway 57 so far, headed northwest towards Hackettstown, having to head out of my way to get where I wanted to go. That’s like life itself.
Biking reminds me: we’re not in complete control, and sometimes the long way around or the slow road is the best way to get where you need to be. It also continually teaches me that I can’t foresee what’s coming; it’s usually not only about my choice anyway; I should try and take it as it comes; and see if I can get it behind me and keep going as best I can.
I guess that’s part of the perspective I want to share. Short of walking, it’s the best way to take in much of what you encounter. Slower and closer at hand if you will… so you notice more. More about the places you pass, the people you encounter, and the world around you. More about what’s going on inside yourself.
On my bike, for example, I can see how many North Americans live on the short end of our popular self-images of American middle class comfort. Too often the highways express us over many realities, from one insulated hub of prosperity to another.
And a bike ride lays before me how beautiful the natural places in this country are, even as they are being encroached upon by our disregard for them. Usually, much closer to civilization than you expect, the world gets green again.
And from the saddle of my bike, architecture and culture and people’s living become signs and symbols of regional accents and inflections. There’s an endless, delightful diversity to creation… when we notice it.
Most importantly perhaps, biking slows me down. Makes me think about how my own efforts and power are only one factor in deciding how far I go. Somehow cycling also helps me figure out where I am, the distance I have covered, and what I still have before me.
My first reminder of perspective happened early on day 3 as I topped a hill. Before me was a exhilarating, steep and long incline. It was already hot and humid, and I was soaked. I looked forward to flying down the hill at a high speed, the wind whooshing by to cool me off.
But before I got going, I noticed that the other end of the depression looked awfully steep. I wondered if my downhill joy was going to be stolen by a long, hard uphill climb on the other side? Well, I might as enjoy the downhills while I can, right? There are inevitably going to have to be inclines too.
But something strange happened. After flying down that hill with the cooling wind the only thing slowing me down, at its base, suddenly the other half of the parabola, my next hill, the incline in front of me, looked completely different. What had appeared from the last hilltop as steep and foreboding, an upcoming struggle… it turned out to be a steady, easy rise that, after my downhill of catching my breath, wasn’t even worth breaking a sweat over.
Hmm, what looks daunting from a distance or from a great height, when you are up close and about to undertake it might turn out not to be so bad. Of course, the opposite is also the case. But perspective reminds us not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Instead, there’s wisdom in staying present and in the moment.
My other insight of perspective came a couple of hours later. I was still on highway 57, curving along a wide, clean shoulder in the shadow of trees trailing along this lovely stream winding by the road as we came into the outskirts of Hackettstown. I’d just seen a blue heron in the creek.
And then right behind me, where I couldn’t see, but couldn’t miss hearing… really close, too close… brakes screeching. The sound, without thinking, sent my mind to ‘catastrophic.’ I said out loud, “Lord, let’s please just not have this hurt for too long.” Next I thought to take my hands off MY brakes… so when struck from behind, hope against hope, I’d stay upright and on the bike and just be propelled forward (instead of getting thrown).
But nothing happened. About 100 feet down the road, I came to a stop and turned around. A driver was getting out of a SUV that had skid inches away from the guardrail.
He said, “I’m really sorry, man. This guy was passing me on a curve. And an on-coming car appeared, he tried to pass between us. He took off my driver’s side mirror. I was startled. And without thinking, I swerved right, away from him, on to the shoulder, and there you were.”
I responded, “You saw me in time and slammed on the brakes. You don’t need to apologize. I need to thank you: your quick thinking saved my life.”
In a blink of an eye, I’d traversed the difference between life and death. And not because I was doing anything wrong. Or because of any wrongdoing of the person who would have taken my life. Not even that God might had any apparent hand in the outcome. Rather, a reminder how easily we can do one another great harm or good. And how interconnected, like a row of dominoes, life is. As well as precious. And fleeting.
But I also found I can trust myself, even if the worst is to happen, to a grace that can carry me through this life and lift me into life to come.
One of my religion professors at Colgate University, Donald Berry, used to speak about the perspectival understanding of religion. Important to his interpretation was Martin Buber’s “I and Thou,” from which Don drew that faith is primarily a different way of seeing and relating.
We might like to imagine — as in some bastardized form of Calvinism — that our faith can make some material difference in our lives. Ah, so many wannabe adherents — overt or unconscious — of a prosperity Gospel. Do the right thing to get rewarded. It’s all so wonderfully self-fulfilling (and self-congratulatory).
But the Bible is pretty honest: heaven rains on the just and the unjust alike. You aren’t going to get rewarded — overtly blessed — for believing or be punished — overtly condemned — for your disbelief.
Rather, religion is far more subtle, though it may be counted on for some blessing nonetheless. It’s not going to change the world for you so much as change your experience of the world. Like a pair of glasses for bringing into focus what is happening around you all the time but you often miss. Or how using a prism to see doesn’t change the quality of the light, but it does show it in its full spectrum…
Faith doesn’t make the world different. I’m still vulnerable to be hurt or exhausted or lost or overwhelmed by what happens. Just like everyone else. But faith changes me. My experience of the world is different because it helps me to see others and myself with more compassion. Gives me a stronger impulse to forgive. And a deeper or abiding sense of how everyone and all creation are precious (even when that’s counter to one’s immediate perception or reaction!). And reminds me that my response is to be love, especially when it might not be what would come “naturally…” Faith makes it easier for me to “show up,” and that, it turns out, makes all the difference in the world.
See you in church,
P.S. Remember we’re going tubing after church this Sunday! (details in an article in the E-pistle)