I try to bicycle to work a couple of times a week, wind and precipitation permitting. The ride involves a considerable climb. My house is at an altitude of 5,668 feet. The highest point of my ride is about nine miles in distance and 450 feet in altitude (6118 feet) farther along. This is followed by a four mile, 930 foot drop. Then comes another slight climb and drop until I end up sixteen miles and 556 feet lower from home. This ride has taught me a few life lessons, which I also learn from the Bible.
One such lesson is the same as the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. There is a big difference between leaving home at 6:30 a.m. during the summer (Daylight Savings Time) and the winter (Standard Time). The obvious difference is that one must dress warmer in the winter, but one must also have a headlight and taillight in the winter months. Tire pressures must be monitored more closely in the colder weather, but the summer brings sticker burrs which, in New Mexico, attack tires with an accuracy as if they were radar guided. The morning commute in all seasons includes vehicular traffic.
In a similar way, we should be prepared to teach the gospel at all times, under varying circumstances. “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season;It is much harder to try to get started again on an uphill climb than it is to shift into low gear and keep going. reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Tim 4:2) Paul knew that different “seasons” and conditions required preparedness.
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor 9:19-22)
Peter also knew the value of being prepared. “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (1 Pet 3:15) We never know when the opportunity to teach may arise. Nor do we know the form in which the opportunity will appear, or in which our teaching will occur. Sometimes we teach with actions, almost always accompanied by words. (Good actions are of little value as teaching if we don’t also tell why we do what we do.)
Be prepared. Instead of an air pump and a patch kit, you might need a Bible and some compassion. Instead of a heavy coat, you might need to take off some self-righteousness, pride, or even worry. You might even need a headlamp to show you someone in your path. A friend of mine recently mentioned a conversation about God that all started in a restaurant by carrying a plate for an elderly man with an oxygen tank. The opportunities are there; we just need to be prepared to take advantage of them.
I don’t always follow my own advice, but I learned long ago that when climbing a hill on a bicycle, you should never stop. If you have to stop, wait until the crest or a flat area. Downshift if you must, but keep pedaling until you reach the top. In my experience, it is much harder to try to get started again on an uphill climb than it is to shift into low gear and keep going. Trying to restart on an uphill can even be dangerous. You can’t get enough speed to go straight or to keep upright. As much as you want to stop, don’t.
It is the same in our walk with Christ. The moment you stop, you run the risk of giving up and turning around. Many people have started the heavenward climb, but stopped somewhere along the way and just couldn’t get started again. If they do succeed in restarting the first time, it is harder if they stop again.
My theme song as I climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan (on foot; not by bike) came from Philippians 3:14. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The temptation was great to stop, but I had a friend to spur me onward, and I had Paul’s words.
Paul had every reason to stop. He had a history that interfered sometimes with his faith. His past even caused believers to shun him. He was stoned and left for dead. He was shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, and rejected. He had a coworker desert him once, and several coworkers leave him on another occasion. Rejected by his countrymen, rejected by other Christians, and rejected by those he sought to teach, Paul could have quit at any time, and most people would not have blamed him. And yet he writes that marvelous passage to the Philippians; and from prison, no less.
Paul had plenty of inspiration in the art of not stopping. Apparently he was a fan of sports, particularly racing and boxing. He uses metaphors from those sports in his writings. His home base was the congregation in Antioch, and that city was famous for its chariot races. (The chariot race scene in Ben Hur took place in Antioch.) As a lover of the races, whether on foot or behind a horse, he knew the results of stopping before the finish line. In a chariot race, as in today’s auto races, stopping could have fatal consequences. In a foot race it would merely mean loss of the prize.
Toward the end of his life, Paul could say that he did not stop. In spite of everything, he refused to stop.
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Tim 4:7-8)
If Paul also wrote the letter to the Hebrews, he used the same imagery to encourage people not to give up. Whoever wrote it, (s)he uses Jesus as an example of continuing onward.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)
Ups and downs
Another valuable lesson from my bike ride is that life has its ups and downs. It is not a constant climb. On my commute there is a moderate valley about a third of the way through, and a long downhill just before a final climb. There are plateaus that are relatively flat. For every up, there is a chance to rest going downhill.
Fifteen of the Psalms are called songs of ascent. Scholars believe these psalms were sung by pilgrims as they went up the mountains to Jerusalem, or possibly by the priests as they went up the fifteen steps to the altar. These are the songs for climbing. But there are even more psalms that could be called songs of descent. Those are the songs where the author is at a low point in life, asking God the perpetual question, why? Peaks and valleys; highs and lows. Just like the history of Israel, the Psalms reflect the cyclical nature of life.
There is some value to the cycle. Life would be pretty boring without ups and downs. If it weren’t for the highs, we would never know how low the lows are. More importantly, if it were not for the lows, we would not know how high the highs are. As one travels eastward from San Diego, California on highway I-10, one quickly gets to a point that is 6,000 feet in altitude. Shortly after that, the road drops again to sea level in El Centro. On my bicycle commute I climb from 5,600 feet to 6,100 feet to 5,200 feet. The peak is about the same altitude, but driving it in a car one does not get the same sense in Albuquerque as in San Diego County. That is because the difference between the lows and the high is significantly greater in California than in New Mexico. One feels the high and the low more when the difference is greater.
A part of being prepared is the realization that life does have highs and lows, and one follows the other. The temptation is to feel lost and deserted during the low points, forgetting that the emotional high will follow.
In Psalm 23, David indirectly points out this fact. Shortly after he says, “Even though I walk through thePeaks and valleys; highs and lows. Just like the history of Israel, the Psalms reflect the cyclical nature of life. valley of the shadow of death,” he says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 13 is an even clearer example.
How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? Consider and hear me, O LORD my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved. But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto the LORD, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.
Several other psalms follow this same pattern: Why have you brought me low, God? But I will praise God because of his goodness. Until I know the depravity of my sin, I cannot appreciate the glorious salvation afforded to me.
Some days I don’t want to face the long commute. Then I reach the first plateau, and everything is good. The climb may be hard, but the view from the top is breathtaking. This life has its pains, but we just haven’t reached the peak of heaven. Yet.