Cycling Past Seventy

April 28, 2011

I meet them all of the time, active bicyclists in their late fifties and sixties who are wondering if they can continue vigorous cycling as they grow older. Often they tell me (especially the men): “I hope that when I’m as old as you are I’ll still be able to ride as well as you do.” They then disappear on down the road, leaving me, the 79-year-old guy with a white beard, to meander along at my own pace.

I receive their comments as they are intended, as genuine expressions of encouragement to me and, even more, hope for themselves. My usual response is to assure them that if they keep riding, and if “nothing breaks,” they should be able to bicycle into old age—slower, yes, climbing with ever greater difficulty, yes, but still on two wheels with an open road ahead.

The response that Dave Moulton has received to a recent post on this same subject confirms my experience. A lot of people who took up cycling years ago want to believe that they will still be able to do it in years to come.

A few days ago I talked with the acquisitions editor of a university-based publisher about doing a book on this topic. She responded with an encouraging show of interest and suggested that my first step would be to write an email query letter. What I sent her is just below. Tell me what you think.

A rapidly growing category of active bicyclists consists of people in their late fifties and sixties who are wondering if they can continue vigorous cycling as they grow older. My purpose for writing this book is to encourage and offer experience-based recommendations to mature adult cyclists as they bicycle into old age.

 The body of the book will be a group of interpretive essays that are based on bicycle tours I have done since I turned 70 a decade ago. Among them are chapters on bicycling the Columbia River Gorge, the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau, the Cumberland Gap and Wilderness Road, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath Trail, and the Sky Islands region of southern Arizona. 

 My plan includes a chapter on practical matters such as choosing the right kind of bicycle and equipment and issues related to health, safety, diet, and conditioning. Another chapter will distill attitudes and practices that I have developed during these tours and which I believe would be useful to mature cyclists. 

 I have been an aggressive adult bicyclist for forty years. For many of those years I commuted to the campus where I taught in the field of religion, and I continue to bicycle on a regular basis in downtown Portland, the west hills, and Vancouver. I have done five bicycle trips of 1,000 miles or more, both as a self-contained camper and as a person staying at motels.

 I have ridden several of the premier cycling events in the United States, including STP, TOSRV, RAGBRAI, Cycle Oregon, El Tour de Tucson, and Indiana’s Hilly Hundred. Much of my cycling has been as a solo rider, but in recent years I have included several trips with PAC Tour, a company owned by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, two record-holding ultra marathon cyclists.

 Most of my publishing has been in the theology, history, and practice of Christian liturgy, which was my academic speciality.  My most recent book was a monograph on the history of the Yakama Christian Mission, published by my church’s historical society. For a year I have published a blog as keithwatkinshistorian, posting columns on religion and cycling.

 The primary audience for this book would be cyclists who hope to continue this sport into their later decades. I believe that their families would also be interested in this volume as would people in bike shops and biking clubs who work with mature cyclists.

 Because the travel essays deal broadly with issues of history, culture, and the environment, they would be interesting in their own right even to people who are not bicyclists. The travel essays were written near the time that the trips were taken, and my plan is to revise them so that they would be consistent with the plan of this proposed book. 

Photo at top, courtesy of Scott Lachniet. Frieze of cyclists is at the Major Taylor Velodrome, Indianapolis.

Reforming Worship: More at Stake Than Common Courtesy and Public Politeness

April 26, 2011

On Sunday mornings at our church in Indianapolis, I often noted the presence of two people who regularly attended worship. A man in his early sixties, dressed in an expensive, conservatively cut suit, was CEO of what was then the Allison Division of General Motors Corporation and a vice president of the parent company. Seated near by was a woman, dressed in casual discount store attire, who was an hourly wage earner in a nearby GM assembly plant.

During the week, they participated in the Indianapolis system of privilege and power in very different ways, but on Sundays (at least while they were in church) they came close to being equal. They could sit any place they wanted. Both had full access to the communion table. Each one was invited to contribute to the church’s ministry and mission “as they were able.” In meetings of the congregation, both could speak freely on the basis of their faith and convictions.

Even in that mildly progressive congregation, however, gender discrimination was still practiced which meant that the man could have served as elder while the woman would not yet have been granted that responsibility. In later years, this aspect of congregational practice was altered to accord more fully with Paul’s declaration that in the church barriers caused by race, gender, and social setting are set aside and all are equal before Christ and with one another (Galatians 3:28).

The tension between culture and Christian community is the central issue in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, which contains the New Testament’s most sustained exposition of worship. In their book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed devote a long chapter to this discussion, using the title “Who and What Controls Your Banquet?” At the heart of Paul’s exposition, they write, are two visions of moral community and two theologies on which these visions are based. (To read more about these two theologies, check my column posted April 19, 2011.)

The two visions are labeled patronal and kenotic. The patronal vision was the defining form of Roman civilization. It maintained a highly stratified social structure and gave unswerving allegiance to the Roman system of military pacification as the basis for social cohesion. The divinized emperor was seated in splendor at the high point of the patronage system and he distributed power and privilege down the pyramid. It was a harsh “trickle down system” fully legitimated by the public rites and ceremonies which so integrated patriotism and religion that the two could not be distinguished from one another.

In Corinth, some of the highly placed were members of the church and they were imposing the customs from their public life on life in the church, thus preserving radical discontinuities between rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. Paul was passionately opposed to what they were doing.

Paul’s alternative to the patronal community imposed from the outside, according to Crossan and Reed, was the kenotic community that was the direct outgrowth of the life that Jesus had lived. It had came to its fullest expression in the meals Jesus had shared with his friends, especially in the meal they ate together on the night that he was betrayed. The foundational theology, eloquently expressed in one of the ancient church’s hymns (Philippians 2:6-11), was that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The church, Paul says, is the community of people who follow Jesus to the fullest extent that life allows.

While Paul conceded that highly placed Christians might continue their participation in the stratified and unjust systems of public life, these practices were not to continue when they were in the church. There, the basic principles of Christ were to be followed with scrupulous care.

To make his point, Paul restated a set of words that were basic to the life of the church where he had become a Christian (Antioch). We refer to them as “the words of institution” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). He also recommended practical changes in the order of worship for the church in Corinth.

As it works at accommodating worship to culture of our time, every congregation will do well to heed the warning with which Paul concludes his most direct discussion of worship. Crossan and Reed make the point this way: “Still the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, the central symbolism of Christianity’s divine responsibility for a shared earth, was fractured badly at Corinth, and Paul knew it. Those terminal warnings about illness and death, judgment and condemnation (11:27-34) indicate very clearly that much more was at stake than common courtesy and public politeness.”

Happy Times in Portsmouth

April 21, 2011

Some of my happiest memories as the father of teenaged sons and daughters include bicycling in the Ohio town of Portsmouth, located where the Scioto River flows into the Ohio. Because of these memories, I am especially grieved by a report published this week in the New York Times (April 20, 2011) that tells of the devastation in Portsmouth caused by rampant use of painkilling prescription medicines, especially among young people.

The article itself is discouraging. The comments—a long list of them—are heart rending and should stab at the conscience of Americans everywhere. What has happened in Portsmouth is but one example of the distress that is emerging everywhere in America, in part, because of the character of our “advanced” economic system that destroys small towns and, in part, because of the heartless response by many people in business and government.

My first trip to Portsmouth was May 13-14, 1972, with Mike, the older of our two sons, who was soon to celebrate his fifteenth birthday. We had become enthusiastic bicyclists and were extending the range of experience and abilities as athletes on two wheels. With considerable trepidation, we had registered for TOSRV—the Tour of the Scioto River Valley—a two-day, 210 mile round trip from Columbus to Portsmouth. It was our first experience cycling with a vast assemblage of other cyclists. Even then, in its tenth year, TOSRV registered 2,200 participants.

Everything about the trip was exotic: travel through country we had never seen, the remarkable logistics to support the cyclists, the chance to see a wide range of high quality road bikes, the challenge of cycling with more experienced riders, and the exhilaration of practicing some of the road skills we had been working hard to learn. The greatest thrill came from the fact that on this trip we rode our first centuries—100 miles—and this not once but two days in succession.

TOSRV riders slept on the floor in schools and other public buildings, and we were assigned floor space in a grade school gym in downtown Portsmouth. After picking up our gear and spreading our sleeping bags, we cycled up the steepest hill of the day to the evening meal, which featured fried chicken, served at the CAY facilities by members of this organization—Catholic Adults for Youth. They were a boisterous lot, these Portsmouth business people and other parents of the city’s teens. How they must mourn the downturn of their town!

Downtown was alive that weekend because Portsmouth was celebrating its annual street festival. We spent time at the bandstand where Mike, a trumpet player in the Shortridge High School band back in Indianapolis, listened with amazement tinged with envy to the brass ensemble. There were booths of various kinds to wander past. The evening air was balmy, people seemed relaxed and easy-going, and we had nothing to do except revel in the delight of being alive, confirmed as cyclists by the day’s ride, and happy to be with each other.

Mike and I continued doing TOSRV the next few years. At various times, sister Sharon, brother Kenneth, neighbor Ron, and girl friend Diane rode with us. After they left home, I continued to do TOSRV every year until 1994, shortly before retiring and moving to Arizona. For many of those years, my traveling companion was good friend Paul (just older than my children) who had learned his cycling skills during his student years at Indiana University in Bloomington.

We became acquainted with the pastor of First Christian Church in Portsmouth and were hosted as overnight guests at his home for several years and at the church after his retirement.

On my last TOSRV (when I was 62), I bicycled the entire distance from Portsmouth to Columbus—105 miles—in six hours and five minutes, total elapsed time. Maybe I could do it in seven hours now, more likely eight.

I wish that I knew how small town America could be transformed so that places like Portsmouth could once again be the kind of community that people really want to live in. At this point, all that I can do is grieve with those who grieve, all the while rejoicing in the memories of this town and the gracious welcome it gave me and mine year after year.

The image at the top can be accessed here. The images of dinner at the CAY building in Portsmouth come from “The Mighty TOSRV,” edited by Greg and June Siple, 1986.

Should progressive churches accommodate? Or should they challenge the culture?

April 18, 2011

The central thesis of adaptive change is that in order to thrive in a new environment churches and other institutions need to change their patterns. Accommodation to the culture therefore seems to be the key to vitality and growth. Three books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual Home.

A contrarian’s point of view, however, is presented by Paul, the church’s first theologian. Not accommodation but radical challenge was his prescriptive counsel to the churches, or so John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed assert in their book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.

“The Roman Empire,” they claim, “was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.”  Paul, however, a Jewish visionary inspired by Jesus, “opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.

Crossan and Reed believe that Paul’s challenge is as great today as it was then. “Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.”

At the heart of Roman civilization was an “imperial theology” which was persuasively expressed wherever Roman military power held sway by two elements.

The imperial cult (or patterns of public religious activity) “which housed deified emperors in temples from Thessalonica to Ephesus,” and which was able to include the gods of conquered peoples in the galaxy of Roman deities.

The cult of luxury, “which brought urban amenities in the form of aqueducts, baths, and entertainments to cities from Asia to Syria.”

Central to Paul’s alternative vision of life in the world was his presentation of Christ as the alternative to Caesar. Since the Caesars were elevated to divine status, as gods in this world and the next, Paul also emphasized strands of the Christian tradition that interpreted Jesus as Son of God, as the embodiment in human form of the very God whom Jews had proclaimed from ancient times.

Among the major characteristics of Roman civilization were a significantly unequal distribution of the basic commodities of life and a distribution of power and privilege that was radically hierarchical. Paul’s vision of the world God intended, a world that Paul believed was already present, included an equally radical redistribution of resources and power. At every point, he could point to Jesus as exemplar of this alternative view of life in the world.

Both of these elements of Paul’s social vision were to be expressed uncompromisingly in the life of the church.

For Crossan and Reed, the most illuminating and decisive biblical text is Galatians 3:27-28, in which Paul asserts that because they had been “clothed with Christ” there could no longer be divisions of race, gender, or social status “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul recognized that Christians lived in Caesar’s world and reluctantly acknowledged that they might need to accommodate themselves to patterns of behavior in that world. With great force, however, he insisted that these accommodations should never be tolerated in the church itself.

The imperial cult in contemporary American life is not as explicitly religious as it was in Paul’s Roman world. The statue of our sixteenth president in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, for example, inspires deep feelings of respect rather than the reverence that was expected when gazing upon statues of the divinized emperors in temples all around the Roman world. Yet to read some of the literature about Lincoln long ago, and perhaps even more about Ronald Reagan of recent date, one could believe that the line between honor and reverence is easily (and often) crossed.

Furthermore, there is a tendency in many churches today to link material gain—the amenities of life made possible by the American version of capitalism—with the gospel. In some strange way, following Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, becomes the way to enjoy a prosperous and comfortable life.

Even as they work at adaptive change, therefore, church leaders need to be thoughtful in their efforts to transform the culture of Christian worship.

Perhaps the central question is this: what accommodations are legitimate as we deal with the need to live effectively in our world? Stated in contrasting fashion: What should we seek to change? And what must ever be the same?

How one pastor uses a bicycle for his every-day work

April 14, 2011

If bicycles are to help Americans solve the transportation side of the energy crisis, we have to find ways of using them for doing our real work—the work by which we make our living. Many people have learned to use them for the daily commute, but what about the trips we have to make during the course of the day?

In his blog fieldofdandelions, Long Beach, California, pastor Danny Bradford reports on a day when he bicycled from his church to a coffee shop for his Wednesday morning sermonizing and then to a rehabilitation center to make a pastoral call. An excerpt from his story appears below. To read the full story, click here. Bradford is a photographer and he often posts examples of his fine work, one of which is posted at the top of this column. To find out more about his church and to sample his sermons, check his church’s website.

It’s probably easier to use a bicycle in Long Beach, with its gentle climate and beach-oriented life style, than in many other communities. Yet, with imagination and persistence, a new generation of bicycle-riding pastors could arise throughout the land.

I’d be glad for testimonies and case studies!

“Yesterday I rode my bike to visit a member who had been in the hospital, and is now in a nursing home/rehabilitation center that, according to their website, is the “closest skilled nursing facility to the ocean in Long Beach.”  Being close to the ocean means that it isn’t exactly close to church; round trip ended up being about fifteen miles, although I didn’t exactly take the short way home.

“The weather forecast included a 10-20% chance of rain.  I left home at 7:00 and headed to Portfolio’s Coffee Shop, which I had never been to before.  I often spend Wednesday mornings at a coffee shop near the church, drinking green tea and reading and/or sermon-writing, but decided to try a new place since it was near the nursing facility.

“There are no bike routes that would take me directly to where I wanted to go.  I guess Long Beach still has a ways to go to be bike-friendly.  However, Walnut Avenue is wide and has less traffic than other streets, so I used that for most of the 4.5 miles to the coffee shop.  The sky was mostly clear and the air was not as cold as it had been the previous few mornings, so it was a nice ride.  And drivers were, for the most part, courteous.

“When I left Portfolio’s, the sky was overcast, but the clouds did not appear too dark.  It was only a few blocks to the nursing facility, although on my way I did pass a gas station and noticed that the price of gas was now almost four dollars per gallon.

“I had a nice visit with a member who was recovering from a broken hip.  After visiting with her, I grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby Taco Bell, then bought some loose-leaf green tea for home from a store a block away.”

Synagogues, churches, and transformation

April 10, 2011

Changing the Culture of Mainline Worship: Fifth in a Series

Many people in long-established churches yearn for something different in the congregations that have long nourished them throughout their lives. They remember times when they came to church gladly, finding there wisdom for life, friendship for everyone in their families, a sense of forgiveness and hope, and opportunities to share their faith with people whom they met in their many activities in the world outside of church. In more recent times, however, many of these qualities have gradually disappeared. Outwardly, their churches seem to be much as they have always been. Yet the energy, sense of life, spirituality, friendship, and joy have ebbed away.

With church historian Diana Butler Bass, who also serves as consultant to churches searching for new vitality, they want to “imagine a new old church.” Bass proposes that for the imagined new church to become a reality it is necessary to recover Christian practices and to ground these practices in classic Christian faith. For congregational life to be vital, she believes, this classic faith must be stated in language that is rooted in the past but couched in the intellectual patterns of our time.

The most provocative illustrations of Bass’s thesis that I have encountered recently are reported by Sidney Schwarz in his book Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue. The book consists of extended case studies of four synagogues, one from each of the major movements of the American Jewish community.

Schwarz begins by analyzing the challenge facing synagogues, and the final chapters consist of his interpretation of why the synagogues that he highlights have become so effective.

Jewish and Christian congregations are enough alike that much of Schwarz’s analysis seems to be directly applicable to churches. The differences between Jews and Christians in the United States, and between synagogues and churches, however, mean that Christian readers have to do a certain amount of translation in order to benefit from Schwartz’s proposals.

One of the most persuasive aspects of Schwarz’s book is a series of ten short essays in which people recount their spiritual journeys. All are adults who had maintained little or no involvement in synagogues or other organized expressions of Jewish life and culture. Yet, they found themselves interested in some kind of connection with synagogues, sometimes for specific services, such as the adolescent ceremonies of belonging (bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah), and sometimes to resolve more generalized searches for meaning.

These people had dropped out of synagogues, Schwarz concludes, because of what they perceived to be “superficiality, pretense, and obsession with materialism.” The synagogues they remembered from their youth had as a primary goal the task of helping Jews assimilate into American life, which meant that they learned to discount as much as possible those Jewish “status markers” that set them apart from their non-Jewish neighbors in the suburbs.

Now in their middle years, these people are embarrassed by how little they know about their Jewish heritage and are seeking the tools they need to achieve a greater sense of competency as human beings. They are “willing to come back to synagogues that offer an authentic encounter with a heritage rich with custom and filled with wisdom.”

Schwarz declares that “key to the success of synagogues that want to capture this generation of seekers is that they be welcoming of the most uninitiated.” He specifically rejects “catering to the lowest common denominator” and states that these Jews, who are accustomed to excellence in schools, businesses, and cultural activities, will have “little patience for synagogues that strike them as mediocre…As savvy consumers, new American Jews will have high expectations of synagogue programming and will rise to the challenge if the programming demands of them serious engagement with the Jewish tradition.”

The above paragraphs are adapted from a sixteen-page essay based on Schwarz’s book. Although I agree with much of his analysis, I propose a second way of responding that I believe is better suited to many of the progressive churches in which I am interested. To read more, click Rich with Custom

Wanted: more bicyclists who obey traffic laws!

April 7, 2011

Shortly after 8:00 pm last night (April 6, 2011), Billie and I drove across the Willamette River on the Hawthorne Bridge in downtown Portland. As often is the case, there were more cyclists than motorists during the couple of minutes that we were on the bridge. Their bright red tail lights, some of them flashing madly, provided us with a clear indication of their presence.

We turned north on heavily traveled Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. There we saw two cyclists in dark clothing riding with no lights at all. The only warning that they were there were dim pedal-mounted reflectors. One of them ran a red light (no traffic was coming from the side street) traveled at a shallow angle across the recently laid tracks of Portland’s expanding light rail system, and took to the dark sidewalk with no lights showing from the storefronts along the way.

I don’t know what the Oregon traffic code contains with respect to this kind of cycling, nor did I see any police cars during our trip through town. Not only were these cyclists endangering their own lives, but they were showing no consideration for pedestrians or motorists. Even though I am a committed urban cyclist, willing to cycle by night and by day (although I prefer day), I have no sympathy for the kind of cycling that we saw last night on Portland’s MLK Boulevard.

I agree 100% with the sentiments that long-time premier cyclist Dave Moulton posted today on his blog. I am taking the liberty of pasting in the first portion of his blog and encourage you to click on the link and read the entire column. His disappointment in the way that so many people bicycle is one that I share one hundred percent.

Image of Hawthorne Bridge from katu news, published online July 18, 2010, and accessed April 7, 2011.

Education or Enforcement

DateThu, April 7, 2011

Going to school in the UK at least twice a year there would be a special lesson on the Highway Code.

A little Highway Code book would be given to us to take home and keep. It not only had all the rules and laws as applied to driving a car, it laid out those that applied to riding a bicycle and pedestrians.

It was drummed into us, when you cross the street, stop, look right, look left, look right again; (Traffic came from the right in the UK.) if the road is clear then cross.

This was war time Britain of the 1940s and due to petrol rationing there were few cars on the road, especially in the rural area I lived at the time. Never-the-less when we crossed the street we went through this ritual of look right, look left.

There were cycling proficiency tests too, where we would bring our bikes to school and the local police constable would come in and instruct us on how to ride our bike both safely and in compliance with the law.

The result was when I started cycling seriously in the 1950s, I never rode on the pavement, (Sidewalk.) I never rode through red lights, and my bike always had a front and rear light when riding after dark. As for riding a bike on the wrong side of the road, toward traffic, that would be so crazy it would not even be considered.

Read more….