When a cyclist’s elastic snaps

September 29, 2011

More about the beautiful machine and those who ride it

Graeme Fife has the ability to draft pithy paragraphs that describe some of the traits of mind and character of people like me, people for whom the bicycle is a metaphor that reveals character. In addition to the one I quoted in an earlier review of this book, four more deserve attention.

This first of these paragraphs states a characteristic of older cyclists: that even though we are slower than we used to be we still push as hard as we ever did. In the middle of the paragraph, however, Fife refers to a physical frontier that some people cross: the time when “the elastic snaps” and we have to stop. Fife says that for the cyclist this frontier is physical, not mental, implying that in our minds we would keep pushing even though our bodies won’t let us. As I turn eighty, however, I am experiencing what may be a mental frontier: that the desire to keep pushing (on the bicycle and in other aspects of life) is diminishing. And the possibility of crossing this mental frontier leaves me anxious.

To an outsider, it may all seem a bit silly, childish, unnecessary. Well, so what? We thrive on pushing ourselves to the limit and as far beyond as the limit is elastic and will give. When the elastic will give no more and snaps, we stop, that’s all, we have to stop, there is no choice, and the day we stop pushing ourselves we have crossed forever a frontier which only physical failing can keep at a distance, not mental. The great running trainer (of Herb Elliott et al.) Percy Cerutti had his men running up and down loose sand dunes, for stamina. He joined them, even in his 70s, and was wont to say: “You may go faster than me but you won’t go harder.” (p. 327)

This next paragraph continues the discussion of going harder, ever harder. Even when one considers significant gearing down, “the sense of gratitude that we can still go at all” is very important. This condition I hope never to lose.

That in my view, is what we’re here for: to go harder, ever harder. There is, too, the uncomplicated sense of gratitude that we can still go at all. For, nothing much gets done in the comfort zone. Risk, chance, exploration of what others timidly call impossible, are the gearing ratios of our momentum” (327).

I agree with Fife’s assertion, in his third paragraph that for some of us cycling is an obsession. Relatively benign, I hope, but the obsessive quality is there.

And saying that Richard [a friend of the author’s] is not a cyclist is no disparagement, simply that in his enjoyment of the bike there is no trace of obsession, and it is obsession, of whatever intensity, which defines us. Our life embraces the bike—the idea of it, the fact of it, the significance of it, the freedom it imparts, the joy, the pain, the inexhaustible delight—and without the bike the life would be, in an essential element, incomplete. That is cyclist. (p. 332)

I agree with one other observation that Fife offers his readers: that the bicycle is a beautiful machine. An even nicer adjective was proposed by S. S. Wilson in an essay published in Scientific American (March 1973). Wilson describes the bicycle as “the most benevolent of machines.” In the paragraph below, Fife makes one other observation that should lead us all to shout our approval as he describes the human body as an even more wonderful machine, driven by an even more wonderful computer.

Top men in the Tour de France, club riders elite and lower rank, club time-trial casuals, advocates of the beautiful machine of all stripes,…we all ride the same fragile machine, and its rhythm and simplicity are closer to the beat of our heart than can be any more powerful, engine-driven conveyance. For the beautiful machine is driven by another beautiful machine, the human body, an engine controlled by the most complex computer ever created: the mortal brain and the immortal spirit. (p. 299)


Our common Christian faith in ten articles

September 26, 2011

The great articles of our common Christian faith, as outlined by Frederick C. Grant in a time of world-wide crisis

In the summer of 1937, following the ecumenical conferences in Oxford and Edinburgh, Episcopal scholar Frederick C. Grant published a fifteen-page essay in which he presented a ten-point summary of “our basic faith” and discussed these points “in the light of our present-day knowledge, with especial reference to the conception of Christianity as the world religion.”

The ten articles could serve as the beginning point for discussions today of the faith that Christians confess in common, and they could stimulate a new discussion of how this faith relates to the issues of Christian life in our own world. (The first step in the discussion would be to revise these points into language that is not gender-bound.)

1. We believe in God, who is supreme, who is one, who is living and active and concerned with the life of the world and with the lives of individual human beings—who is, in short, the one described in the Bible as “the living God.”

2. We believe that God is a person and has a will and purpose for the world, and that he requires certain things of men and nations if they are to live in accordance with his purpose. National, indeed racial, survival depends upon obedience to this will of God; and individuals are equally amenable to his will.

3. God has not left mankind to find out his will, as best they can, by their own initiative or efforts. He has revealed himself and his will to men. This has taken place slowly and gradually, over many centuries and in many lands: God’s self-revelation culminated in the Incarnation, that is, his self-manifestation in Jesus of Nazareth.

4. This revelation is found not only in the words and deeds of Jesus, but in his whole person, his spirit, his attitude toward life, his interpretation of life’s meaning and his unveiling of that meaning in his whole life and character.

5. The sin of the world, that is, our falling-short of this divine standard, is removed by God in Christ “reconciling the world unto himself”—specifically in his death on the cross; and through his resurrection has come a new power that enables men to live in accordance with his revelation of God’s will and of man’s capacities, as redeemed.

6. The church is the Body of Christ, the extension of his Incarnation, the fellowship of his redeemed; and its work consists chiefly in the ministry of word and sacrament, whereby the kingdom of God is enlarged, and more and more persons are brought into the divine fellowship. (This is not to deny God’s “uncovenanted mercies”; for God is not limited to our ministry; but these are the normal means for saving men and drawing them into the circle of the divine life—the “life in grace.”)

7. We believe in the forgiveness of sins, and the reconciliation of individuals, classes, and nations, through appropriation or sharing in Christ’s spirit; and that the goal of human progress, or of human development in accordance with the divine intention, is possible of attainment through the renewal or regeneration which is in Christ—and in no other way.

8. We believe in eternal life, as a sharing in the very life of God himself, the Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life. But we do not understand this as a substitute for “social” effort. Rather, the full realization of the ethic of salvation means the coming of the kingdom of God upon earth, where all mankind shall be one harmonious, peaceable, because righteous, family of children of the one God and Father of us all. Christian eschatology does not “cut the nerve of social action,” but inspires it. “Apart from these ye cannot be saved.”

9. The Christian ethic is summed up in an ideal of the highest justice, which is love: or conversely, of the highest love, which is supreme justice and righteousness. Neither is a substitute for the other; at the highest level, they coincide.

10. No formal definitions can state exhaustively the content of this basic Christian faith; for essentially it is a faith rooted in life, that is, in experience and in action. “He that doeth the will [of God] shall know of the doctrine…” Naturally, then, no definition can do more than shadow forth, symbolically, the meaning of the new life in Christ, which passes understanding and goes beyond words. But we do not hesitate to affirm that, so far as human word can convey this transcendent meaning, the language of the Bible, and that of the historic creeds and liturgies, hymns and other devotions and statements of doctrine of the churches, do convey as they were designed to convey, the meaning of this new life in Christ and its significance for all men everywhere.

Frederick C. Grant, “Our Basic Faith,” in Christendom 3 (1938), 337-351.

The formula for bicycling over impossible mountain passes

September 23, 2011

After a few years teaching Greek and Latin literature, Graeme Fife turned away from the security that academic life provides to become a free-lance writer (successfully, as his long list of scripts, essays, and books proves). Throughout his life (he was born in 1946), Fife has been fascinated by bicycles and the people who ride them. His best-known books focus on the Tour de France, its history, its legendary terrain, its racing fraternity, and the hangers-on.

Now comes The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling, from Tour de France to Cinder Hill, Fife’s memoir in which he uses his love of bicycles as the key to presenting the man he has always been.

The book makes clear that from his first acquaintance with a bicycle, when he was five years old, freedom is what he has craved—freedom from the constraints of his childhood home and from home later on, freedom to come and go, freedom to do what he was driven to do even when it resulted in the intermittent shortage of funds and genteel homelessness.

The book is believable because Fife is himself a constant, strong, determined cyclist who has powered himself through some of the world’s most challenging territories, especially the magnificent mountains which the Tour de France has imbued with an aura nearly supernatural in its radiance.

This book “is bare-knuckle writing at its most punchy,” the book jacket declares, “rippling with wit and energy.” It has to be because the book could be dull since most of it is built around descriptions of rides that Fife has taken, some of them solo, more of them with family and friends who seem to have similar commitments to hard-core bicycle riding as a way to fulfill their human destiny. Some of the descriptions—the ride through Timbuktu as the chief example—disappoint me because the cyclists’ zeal seems  to exceed the bounds of civility. The greater part of the book, however, provides insights into the inner workings of a cyclist’s mind and heart. I cannot think of another writer who does this so well.

The best chapters describe his cycling journeys through and over the steepest, hardest climbs in the world of cycling. Unlike ordinary writers, however, Fife has little to say about the sweat and grime, nor does be bleat about how unprepared he was, as so many lesser writers do.

Rather, it is the resolve of the head, the constancy of heart and lungs, the steady dependability of the legs that come out clearly. Many cycling travel accounts can be summed up, “Gee whiz, it was hard!” Not this book. After describing one of his ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez, one of the most celebrated cols in Europe, Fife explains the inner workings that make it possible.

This is the bedrock of reality: however grim you feel physically, whatever defeatist temptation clouds your mind, giving up solves nothing. The kilometers ahead of you, the steepness of the road, the suffering, mental and physical, that it’s going to take to surmount them: all that lies ahead of you and will not go away. The inclemency of the weather may change, granted, the geology will not and time ticks on. Thinking you won’t make it is like worry—it changes nothing and merely adds the weight of anxiety to the problem. This you can do without, so shun it in favour of the reality: I can’t go on, I must go on, I will go on. The formula may be simple: it most decidedly is not simplistic. It has to be earned and learnt from the inside out.”

In this paragraph, Fife presents wise counsel that can be transferred beyond the physicality of cycling to a broad range of human endeavor. Elsewhere in the book, he provides other summaries of what he has learned in the half century of cycling on which this book is based. More about that another time.


Pastors and the “planning fallacy”

September 21, 2011

My first contact with the work of Peter Drucker was in 1966 when I came across his book The Effective Executive on the new book display at a small branch library in Indianapolis. Since one of my areas of teaching was a course called Church Administration, I took it home and later bought my own copy. As much as any other book dealing with how pastors should care for the church as organization, Drucker’s insights guided me in ways that still are central to my way of working.

Forty years later, I began reading books by Ronald Heifetz and colleagues. Again, the insights of people who deal broadly with the character of leadership in organizations of many kinds have proved to be useful in thinking about how pastors of churches can do their work effectively.

Thanks to New York Times columnist David Brooks, I will be looking for a forthcoming book by still another writer who has much to say that can be helpful to pastors even though the focus of attention is much more broadly focused: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

In a recent column shaped by Kahneman’s book, Brooks discusses the limits of presidential power. He distinguishes between “discrete good” and “systemic good.” Presidents have the power to do specific things that help people and improve the situation, Brooks writes, and he gives examples. These discrete goods are important in their own right and ought to be done.

What presidents cannot do, says Brooks, is transform an entire system. The discrete goods may in time lead to systemic good, but the power to achieve that broader change in the national way of life lies beyond the power of any one president.

This assessment of the limits of executive power can be applied to the work of pastors of long-established congregations. Churches are culture bearing and culture preserving institutions. Attitudes, habits, and relationships are deeply ingrained, often in ways that are scarcely visible except to observers trained to see beneath the appearances.

Pastors may be told by leaders of their congregation that they are to help their congregation change. When the pastors try to do this, however, the congregation’s cultural DNA that has been building up for decades, often for more than a century, resists. No one intends to impede progress, but the system holds firm, and the congregation quickly reverts back to what it had been.

Pastors do have power to do discrete good. They can improve how a congregation functions, and this they ought to do. They can lead worship with spiritual sensitivity and dramatic skill. They can preach good sermons. They can lead by the confident, diligent example of their own lives. They can be spiritual guides to people on their spiritual pilgrimages. They can troubleshoot the system and propose new possibilities. They can invite new people into the congregation’s membership and help them find their ways into the leadership core. They can encourage specific modifications to the DNA, some of which will work.

In time—studies of congregational dynamics indicate that it takes close to a decade—these discrete goods may lead to systemic good, to the significant reshaping of the deeper layers of congregational culture. Even though a pastor and congregational leaders may have ideas about the new church they hope to see and in the light of this vision shape their discrete programs accordingly, they cannot predict what will come or determine its form and dynamic power. Yet persistent, patient, purposeful, prayerful work can lead to transformation that exceeds all that they could have ever imagined.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that faith hope and love abide and that the greatest of these is love. He’s probably right when we think of the full range of human life, that love comes in first. When it comes to pastoral leadership, however, I think that there may be a photo finish, with hope vying with love for first place across the finish line.

Note: Brooks’ column is entitled “The Planning Fallacy” and appears in the New York Times September 16, 2011. It was reprinted in The Oregonian on September 17, 2011. The graphic hangs in a room in First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon, that “change-resisters”  like me persist in calling “Fellowship Hall.”

Biking wisdom from middle aged cyclists

September 16, 2011

Most of the people with whom I bicycle these days are twenty to thirty years younger than I am. Some worry, fearing that they could lose their abilities as cyclists. Others continue to hope that despite the inevitabilities of advancing age they will be able to continue serious, long distance cycling for many years to come.

Some of these “younger” riders are making constructive adjustments to their cycling attitudes and habits, and a few of them have been interviewed in Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100. Judging by biographical information I have found on line, Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky, authors of the book, are themselves in this middle range of life. It would be interesting to see how they would revise it if a new edition were to come out in 2035. Here are some notes from their interviews.

Gary Fisher, closely associated with the development of the mountain bike, starts his 2004 interview: “I’m 53, but I feel like I’m in my 20s. That’s because I can still get on my bike and do what I do. It’s still the same.” Acknowledging that he’s not as fast as he used to be, Fisher continues: “All the same actions are there; standing up out of the saddle, powering through this, climbing in certain gears. The act of being able to do this is really important.” He lists the changes that have come as he has aged, especially the fact that he can’t recover as quickly as he used to or go as fast. A sign of his self-knowledge and wisdom in this comment: “I’ll ride within myself and ride fast. But I’ll ride within what I know I have confidence I can do.”

John Howard, one of the nation’s most celebrated competitors and coaches and about 57 during his 2004 interview, states that “we all reach a point where we diminish in terms of vital capacity. You can accept it or just deny it.” He describes ways that he tried to fight that diminishment and provides several paragraphs of constructive ideas about maintaining vital capacity.

The fascinating part of his interview, however, comes later in the essay when he declares that he wants to have balance. “To me, that balance is more than physical. It’s mental as well.” Howard has come to the conclusion “that all of us are geared for X-number of miles at effort. When you use that up it’s probably going to be gone and you’re going to have to find something else to do.” He’s chosen not to race anymore because for him that’s “wasteful dissipation of the energy…I’ve reached a point where I know that there is no immortality. What’s important for me is to prolong, elongate the process of life and to experience it on a positive, blissful level.” For Howard, this means that he doesn’t have to compete anymore; instead he wants to be “the best coach in the world.”

Ned Overend, a record-holding mountain-biker and 57 at the time of the interview, decares that as we get older we have to pay attention to pain, nutrition, hydration, and not falling. He recommends “banishing burnout with variety.” Even in these later years he maintains “an enthusiasm for racing and riding hard” by “cross-training and not being obsessive.”

Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycle Components and 54 when interviewed, notes that in recent years he has worked hard at “trying to be fit.” Then comes the paragraph that speaks to me because I’m the same age as the people he describes. “What would be the ultimate goal in life? It is, like, you know: great family, being healthy. But you see some of these 80-year-old guys in Italy? On Sunday morning they’re out riding on these real cool bikes. I mean, that’s the goal, to be healthy like that. And helps ya keep perspective. You go for a long ride and you come back and you have a full glass of juice. It’s like the best thing ever.”

Patrick O’Grady, freelance writer and cartoonist (print and online), who is described as “bearing down on 50,” has a inviting list of recommendations: be less serious about training, keep riding all year round (older riders can ‘t afford off-seasons), have fun on a bike (O’Grady scoffs at “terminal serious types”), and make your cycling habitual.

A lot of this advice can be summed up with a recommendation my wife gave me years ago when I came into the house sweaty and out of breath after a game of kickball with our kids and their neighborhood buddies: “The way to stay young is to play with your kids, but not their games.”

As we move into the later decades, our goal should be to keep on biking much as we always have but in age-adjusted ways. For most of us, the two-wheeled life is still a great way to go.

An Order of Holy Communion for Use Every Sunday

September 12, 2011

In 1962, during my first year as a neophyte professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Dean Ronald E. Osborn, who also edited the seminary’s quarterly journal Encounter, suggested that I consider drafting an order for celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday. He was thinking of most of the historic Protestant Churches, which celebrated this sacrament only monthly or quarterly. He thought that the experience of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with their tradition of the “every Lord’s Day Lord’s Supper” could provide encouragement to these other churches.

I drafted a brief essay of principles and a draft liturgy. It was my first effort to do this kind of work, and as I review it half a century later I see many evidences of my inexperience in this kind of writing. (But don’t expect me to point them out. You’ll have to find them on your own.)

After he had reviewed my essay and liturgy, my dean suggested that we send them out to people in several Protestant churches to ask for comments, which we would publish along with what I had written. With considerable trepidation, I agreed and together we developed the list. Only one person, as I recall, declined our invitation. When their comments came in, I read them with a growing sense of appreciation for the scholarly habits of respect to one’s comrades in the academy, especially those who were in the early stages of learning their craft.

In 1963, when these materials were first published, the movement to reform worship in historic Protestant and Catholic Churches was still in an early stage. Important preparatory literature had been published and several churches had begun the process of developing new worship books and hymnals. Scholars, writers, and editors were finding ways to collaborate, with the result that they were learning from one another in new ways.

Still to come, however, were some of the opportunities for sustained personal contact, such as the Commission on Worship of the Consultation on Church Union, the North American Academy of Liturgy, and the Consultation on Common Texts. Discussion was just emerging with respect to revisions in English usage, especially in matters related to gender-biased language and the continued use of Elizabethan styles in the language of prayer. Only later in the decade of the 1960s did new eucharistic liturgies begin the process of incorporating new patterns of English usage.

Not until 1978, fifteen years after my liturgy was published, did the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship publish The Lutheran Book of Worship, the first in a series of American books that was climaxed in 1993 (thirty years after my liturgy) by the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

Although later work would show significant advances in theology, liturgical forms, and the use of language in worship, this 1963 paper, with its symposium, provides a basis for understanding the mindset of representative scholars at a time when liturgical renewal was entering into a highly creative period.

To read the essay, liturgy, and symposium, click An Order of Holy Communion. . . .

Note: This online republication is with the permission of Encounter. Thank you. 

Attitude adjustment for aging cyclists

September 8, 2011

By the time people are as old as I am, we have developed habits and practices that are deeply engrained. It takes impressive arguments or powerful inducements to make us change our ways. Yet, this is what Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katosky are doing to me as I look forward to another decade of aggressive cycling. Their book Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100 is making me reconsider how I ride a bike.

Strength Training: I’m signing up for yoga. Despite the advice by all of the experts, I have not done weight work or strength training. My stretching patterns have been modest, consisting primarily of a few routines remembered from high school cross-country workouts. Roy and Bill discuss the value of working on agility and strength in a way that has developed a new resolve, but knowing my lifelong patterns I know that I need a structured environment. Retaining a personal trainer in order to grunt and sweat, however, still has no appeal, but there’s a yoga studio one block from my condo, and one of my neighbors continues to proclaim its merits. In a couple of weeks, I’ll start—one session a week for sixteen weeks. Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s better than what I’m doing now, which is nothing.

Bike Fit: Cyclists come in all sizes and shapes. If they are to gain maximum advantage from their two-wheeled mounts, their bikes need to be set for their particular bodily qualities. Getting a frame that’s the right size is the most important factor, but so are more subtle matters such as the length of the stem, the height of the saddle, and the placement of the cleats on your shoes. Twice in my cycling career I’ve availed myself of bike fitting services when I’ve bought new bikes, and I am confident that my bikes are close to being exactly right.

But cyclists change as they age, and the ideas about bike design and fit also go through fads and fancies. Paying attention to one of these recent fads, I have experimented with cleat placement. The result: my legs have hurt all summer and I had to curtail my cycling. I put the cleats back where they were and my legs are improving. Bike for Life discusses bike fit so constructively that I intend to evaluate the several shops in Portland and pick one that can help me revise my settings.

Nutrition: For 59 years my nutritionist has been my wife who has made good eating habits a way of life. During 40 years of hard cycling, I have developed useful ways to augment my normal diet during hard rides, such as drinking a 32 ounce bottle of a sports drink about two-thirds of the way through a long, hard ride. (A few days ago it was at mile 60 of a 79.04-mile ride.)

Bike for Life provides a thorough discussion of ways to maintain health and effectiveness, with an emphasis upon good food, good cooking, and good sense. It confirms many of the habits I now practice and provides the incentive to rethink these matters as I look forward to more years of hard cycling. As we age, our bodies provide an ever-shrinking margin of error, and a thoughtful approach to nutrition is one way of responding creatively.

Attitude Adjustment: Although Roy and Bill are a lot younger than I (as are most of the people they highlight in this book), they understand the impact of aging on body, mind, and spirit. Their discussion of these matters helps me think about how to adapt my long-time habits in order to retain the ability to perform and to increase the levels of satisfaction. Most experts say that to grow stronger, cyclists need to alternate intense training and periods of recovery.

I think that this pattern continues to be part of old age cycling, but with three modifications. First, older cyclists have to accept the fact that our bodies say “no.” With my doctor’s help, I have learned to recognize when my body tells me “Don’t push so hard. It could be dangerous.” Second, it is clear that the recovery periods take longer than they used to, which means that the training schedule probably needs to be stretched out. Third, and probably most important, is the need to modify the purpose of training. The physicality of riding faster is less important during the later years. At best, we can barely keep up, anyway. Instead, the spirituality of cycling becomes increasingly important. We continue training with the purpose of extending the span of years when self-propelled travel through interesting places continues to add enjoyment to life. It also moderates the inevitable decline of mind (and body).

The adage “practice makes perfect” needs to be corrected to read “practice makes permanent.” Bike for Life can help us revise our permanent habits so that they come a lot closer to being perfect.