Focused Prayer through Cycling?

I’ve recently noticed how quickly my mind becomes focused when riding a bike down a steep hill at nearly 30 miles an hour. A more intense, laser-type focus springs forth when this descent has me inches away from a rumbling tractor-trailer on my left and a four inch concrete curb on my right. Prayer suddenly emerges when the bike path I’m navigating through is debris-strewn with rocks, twigs, tire-puncturing glass and odd bits of metal. Then, invariably, the light turns red! My mind effortlessly switches to shifting gears, applying brakes and unclipping my right cleat from the pedal (see my post on Bike Tipping and Humility for more on how not to unclip). At the red light I notice my breathing is heavy but my mind is amazingly aware and engaged. I’m awake! I’m alive! And I’m loving life!

 

I Can’t Run?

For some reason, this reminds me of when my neurosurgeon told me stop running; it was like a gut-punch knocking the wind out me. I loved to run. I could pray when I ran; meditate or ponder some complex work-related issue when I ran. Running was also the quickest way to stave off those pesky love handles!

Cycling certainly helps keep me fit and trim, but I can’t just put my shoes on and run. And I can’t ride my bike while lost in prayer or some other deep thought. So I’ve had to adapt.

Cycling requires more preparation and more equipment. But, alas, I’ve been riding consistently since the summer of ’13 when God blessed me with the ability to buy a newer bike that better fit my “newer” neck. I did a lot of riding when I was younger, but gave it up when I started a family. When I wanted to start riding again, I discovered my old bike didn’t fit me anymore, primarily due to neck surgeries; after all, triple fusions have a way of messing with mobility! So I needed a new bike. Granted, it’s not a super expensive bike, but neither am I a super-expensive rider. Do I really need carbon everything and the fanciest gadget that talks to every satellite? No, not really, I’m not going to set any Strava records and I get dropped in every group ride I participate in; so my equipment is very solid, mid-range stuff. Maybe someday I’ll share more details about my specific bits of equipment.

 

A Little Background

long_road.jpgBefore we moved to the west side of town, my rides were typically flat and long; I could get on a long stretch of country road and let my mind sort of zone out. It could wander off in all sorts of different directions.

Living out here though, letting my mind wander even briefly could have disastrous results. I need to stay focused on the long, hard climbs; otherwise, I might slow so much I fall over or simply mentally give up. A wandering mind while urban adventure riding (UAR) could cause me to miss the car pulling out in front of me, or the light turning red or the box of nails spilled in the bike path (yes that really happened).

But what it is also teaching me is to live in the moment. Each moment in UAR can bring opportunities. Opportunities to sprint through the yellow light or climb the big hill in the midst of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam or to watch kayakers slide effortless under the Union Street foot bridge. And with Pokeman Go, there always fully distracted bi-peds crossing my path! It’s awesome! But it requires me to be in the moment each moment.

 

Living in the Moment and Prayer

This is new to me. I’m always thinking ahead, like to the next meeting, the next vacation, Stay_mind_verse.jpgor even what’s for dinner. I rarely live in the moment. And not living in the moment makes me a terrible listener and it inhibits my prayer life. Training my mind to focus, even if it is through UAR, is developing the skill of “staying my mind.” Look what Isaiah says:

You [God] will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts you. (26:3)

This means that as I focus my mind, or lean my mind upon God, God can work His peace in my soul. Such a stayed mind helps me allow the peace of Christ to fill me (see John 14:27 and Colossians 3:15). Being scattered and unfocused just causes my mind to be agitated or simply distracted. If my prayer life is scattered, then what does that say about my heart toward God? Am I really seeking His kingdom first (see Matthew 6:33), or am I jumping around with a to-do list I want God to fill?  So the skills of living in the moment that I’m learning in my UAR efforts are also helping me in my prayer life. Now when I sit and pray, I’m more intentional about being focused on just God, His character and, of course, His grace and mercy.

Now I don’t think everyone needs to adopt a UAR life, but I do think each of us has something in our lives that we can learn from. Take gardening, for instance. Working the soil and caring for plants has way of slowing and then focusing the mind. Or what about model building, jigsaw puzzles or hiking? If we look for learning opportunities, we may be surprised how many there are in our everyday lives.

Mourning, Anger and Compression Socks

 

This has been a weird week, both personally and nationally.

All of the killings that have happened in our nation are numbing and tragic. Regardless of my political leanings, or thoughts on the 2nd Amendment or attitudes on activism; American families are in mourning and in need of my prayers. This is part of how I love my neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). Our nation is in need of my prayers. God help us!

 

The Anger Part

SocksI was on my bike ride yesterday when I was pondering all the mourning. As I entered onto a very busy street with a debris-strewn bike path, some dude swerved into the bike lane so his buddy could stick his upper body out of the window to scream at me. It of course startled me, and thankfully they didn’t hit or grab me, but as they sped away, I started fuming. I even yelled at them, and no, I didn’t say “thank you!” I am glad I kept both hands on the handlebars so I didn’t flail around any hand gestures that could’ve caused me even more trouble.

But as their car faded from view and I started climbing one of West Salem’s many hills, I marveled how quickly I went from mourning to anger. Yes, what those people did to me was dangerous and stupid, but I allowed them to disturb my soul. Then I started realizing how I allow a lot of other things to disturb my soul as well.

Sure, most of what is in the news is bad, but typically, we only see what the news wants us to see. We actually have to work to see the positives in life. But even amongst all the sadness and tragedy, there is still beauty. Just look around and marvel at the joy that surrounds us. Even as we pray for more of God’s presence and peace in our own souls and throughout our nation, we can at the same time be thankful for our families, flowers, birds, bikes, and so on.

 

Now the Socks

I was reminded of a simple example of joy when I started speeding down the hill just described, my feet were more comfortable in my new compression socks! Silly, I know, but also simple and joyful. The socks help message the calves, wick sweat away better and just add more overall comfort. And they were on sale to boot!

Like I said, it’s been a weird week, and I didn’t mention my CT scan (but that’s another story).

Trees, Forest and Eternity

Tree_forestI am fascinated by the both/and nature of Jesus. So often we are tempted to put Him into a box; even pastors from the pulpit put Him into a box of theologically constructed rules and regulations. But Jesus has none of that.

 For instance, in John 14:2-3 Jesus is teaching to both the disciples present and to you and I today. “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

Trees

In the foreground in the picture above is a single tree. It is an alpine tree so it is not as full as trees at lower elevations. This tree represents the person to whom Jesus is teaching. That person is the disciple in the upper room sitting at His feet in rapt attention and it is also the reader of Scripture in 2014 riding the subway to work. It is a timeless message to each individual that has accepted Jesus into their lives. It is a promise that has not yet run its course. It is an equal promise to all that have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is a promise of an eternal destiny with Jesus for evermore.

Forest

In the background is the forest—a whole bunch of individual trees gathered together in an evergreen community, withstanding all that the elements of climate can throw at them. The trees are the community of Christ-followers. This community is both local and global. It is both then and now. It is past, present and future. This is the Kingdom of Christ being built throughout the centuries one tree at a time.

The Mountain and Eternity

The mountain sits in the very back of the picture. The mountain is immoveable, ever-present, majestic and beautiful. That is our destiny, the mountaintop of forever existence with Jesus.

Yes, it is true, that we can’t really see the final destiny with our eyeballs; we can, however, sense it in our inner being by way of the Holy Spirit. And yes, many of us, myself included, suffer pain of some sort every day this side of our Eternal Destiny. Yet we know that one day when we do finally arrive at that Eternal Destiny that all pain will cease, we will be completely redeemed, restored and made new (see Rev. 21 & 22 and 1 Cor. 15).

 Endurance

But like the bike ride it took to get to place to take this picture or to climb the mountain in the background we need endurance. Marathoners need endurance as do backpackers and parents. Those that suffer chronic pain or unspeakable persecution need endurance. Jesus needed endurance. We get our endurance with proper care of our bodies through nutrition, training and rest; but we also need to prepare for spiritual endurance by absorbing Scripture, spending time in prayer—which is really communion with the Father, and by being connected to our local forest whether it be a church, home group or a huddle of refugees.

 But to all of us, both then and now, the promise still holds true, that Jesus is preparing a place for us and one day we will all be with Him for ever more, amen.

Cycling to Sisters and: The Why

Miller_tour_1

Climbing up Tombstone pass, portions of which pitch to a ten percent grade, causes one to ask the question: why am I doing this? My lungs weren’t exploding but my quads were. Even though I had already put in nearly 1,000 base miles, I had not trained for hills this big, especially in the altitude we were moving into. Again, the question, why?

 I don’t know.

 The day before Tombstone, we had ridden from Keizer to Sweet Home, about 58 miles and change. And of course, there were hills, big hills; but nothing like Tombstone. In fact, it was uphill for 40 miles from Sweet Home to the top of Tombstone, 11 miles of it between six and 10 percent in grade. What am I trying to prove?

I don’t know.

Maybe it was the thrill of the adventure, the challenge of pushing my body beyond anything I’ve done in 25 years, or maybe it was the fellowship with friends or the scenery, or wanting to see how far I could push my triple-fusion neck. Maybe it was a combination of all the above. Maybe I need to see a doctor.

 Before the trip even began I thought maybe I’d get some nice quality prayer time while spending hours in the saddle. But that didn’t happen. I was suffering too much to truly pray other than pleading for help up this massive mountain that seemed to head straight up into space. I prayed I wouldn’t get hit by the many cars speeding by. I prayed my dizziness wouldn’t all of the sudden cause me to veer into the speeding traffic or off the side of the gravelly canyon. Oh yes, I prayed, it just wasn’t the prayer of solitude, but more the prayer of panic. Why?

 I don’t know.

 But I made it. Granted, I didn’t turn a pedal on every mile but I rose to the primary challenges while also being humbled—humbled by the hills, humbled by my slowness, and humbled by the loss of former physical abilities. I am not 28 anymore and I do have a compromised spine. I also have a loving God that allows me to participate in such endeavors.

And perhaps this is the answer to the why, deepening humility while also, as ironic as it sounds, deepening my gratefulness to God. I did draw closer to Jesus if only in recognizing that, yes, He was with my in the terrifying descent down the Santiam Pass and into Sisters. He was with me on the last arduous climb the day after Sisters where I swore I’d quite riding (although I was riding less than 24 hours later after we got home). He was with me as I was so dizzy I could hardly keep my bike in a straight line. And He is still with me now, even after such a quest; a quest I didn’t need to do other than verifying to my own soul that, yes, even now, I am alive, I am well, but even more, I am alive and I am living life, not letting life live me.

 That I do know.

Rest for the Soul While in the Saddle

Trek Bike“All I wanted to do was ride my bike.”
–Chris Froome, Tour de France winner from his book, Climb

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
–Jesus, Matthew 11:29

These two quotes, while seemingly unrelated, were pounding in my head with each laborious pedal stroke. I was climbing a hill, more like a mountain, something like a 90% grade, and … okay, it wasn’t that steep but it felt like it should have been! I was attacking the hill at a blisteringly slothful pace, in fact, my cyclometer was mocking me by registering only 1 mph. But I didn’t care, it was Saturday, grad school was done for the semester so I had no homework and I was on the road with sun, shade, wind and hills. I was alone and loving every painful second of it.

I was panting hard and resting in my soul.

The word ‘rest’ in the quote from Jesus can mean an inner quieting, a calming of the internal seas of thought and motion; or as Strong’s Concordance states it is an intermission or cessation from motion. For me, on that hill and most of the time on my bike it is an inner quieting. I often pray as I ride, not just that I won’t get killed by a car or wipe out on the descent, but I also pray thankfulness and worship because I am blessed to be doing something I love. In fact, I even invite Jesus to accompany me on my rides; this may sound silly but it is an intentional action on my part to acknowledge the Lord’s ever-presence. This brings a quietness to my soul.

Part of the quietness is steeped in contentment. I am content on my bike. Even as my friends have nicer bikes and are stronger riders, I am still content doing my best. My bike serves me well and it is the nicest I’ve ever owned (it’s a Trek 1.5). I’ve improved a little bit from last year and my fitness level is pretty high. There’s no reason not to be content, even on the big hills or in unrelenting headwinds; eventually I crest the hills to then enjoy the speed down the other side and strong headwinds often become strong tailwinds, allowing me to cruise at a much faster pace than normal. It’s awesome to be speeding along with little to no effort, it’s like sailing on asphalt!

The word ‘soul’ is really the inner core of our being, the ‘seat’ of all of our thoughts and feelings, it’s also caller our ‘heart.’ So Jesus is saying that in Him the inner core of our being, the very nature of our existence can rest, have intermission, can quiet down as we take His yoke onto our lives. The word ‘yoke’ will be explored at another time, but it has nothing to do with fulfilling works or with eggs!

On the bike I concentrate on the road directly in front of me, or on my breathing or on my pedal strokes amidst my prayers. I don’t have time nor inclination to worry about my future; besides, I need to make sure I am not riding through broken glass or jagged little rocks that litter the shoulders (when there are shoulders). For a brief time I am living in the now, I am actually present with the moment rather than worrying about the future or lamenting about the past. All that is is now, there is nothing else, that is, of course, until I arrive back in in my driveway and see my youngest son playing with the sprinkler in the mud patch that used to have a hedge on it!

Herons Flock? Early Morning Cycling and God’s Surprises

001I glanced off to my right on one of my early morning rides. The sun had been up for about five minutes so when I looked right, I looked right into the sun (I totally forgot that right was also east). This two-lane country road was vacant except for a lone cyclist in a bright red jersey (that’d be me; I wanted to make sure bleary-eyed, under caffeinated drivers saw me). On each side of the road are large cow pastures. In the field on the right was a gigantic sprinkler with big earth-mover wheels. I think it runs off a big water pump in the center of one those round fields you usually only see from the air.

Anyway, standing in the misty spray was a lone and large Blue Heron. Or so I thought. I had to look again, because I love viewing wild life (the natural kind, I had enough of the other wild life as an undergrad—and what little I actually remember is more about mysterious bruises and pounding headaches). I’m fascinated by the bird’s long, slender neck and needle-like beak. Then I saw another one, then another and then…a whole bunch of them! About 20 were gathering in rather loose proximity to each other, apparently all of them basking in the swirling mist of the sprinkler heads. I always thought they were solitary birds. I would have stopped to take a picture but I didn’t want to slow the awesome momentum I had in my blistering pace of 18 mph (all right, I heard that snicker…so I’m not Jens Voight, but I do ride a Trek).

Later on, I told two of my colleagues about this as we were waiting for one of those dreary, late afternoon meetings. Neither of them believed me so they whipped out their smart phones in a race to ascertain the truth. It was sorta like a phone-on-phone High Noon scenario, I can just see Gary Cooper jangling in spinning spurs, whipping out his Android and….oops, I digress. Anyway, Susan won the race and found out that Herons occasionally flock in an effort to round up prey in a Heron-induced circle of breakfast. Apparently they eat rodents from time to time as well. Who knew (except early morning cyclists, and, of course, Google)?

Every now and then I run into one of these fascinating nuggets of discovery. This was something I would have never known had I not been cycling early in the morning. And as a person of faith I could only smile at God’s creativity with all the varieties and oddities of life right here in my own proverbial backyard.