Bicycling as a Liberal Art

October 29, 2011

The problem for most serious bicyclists is that we focus attention on going fast. By so doing, we negate one of the finest virtues of cycling, which, according to Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe, is to explore the ordinary world around us. “Exploration,” he says,” is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”

As proof of his claim, Stilgoe provides a book full of his own meditations and reflections about bicycling through alleys, the back side of shopping centers, abandoned railroad rights of way, country roads, and short cuts through neighborhoods that only kids know about. His title suggests his mood: Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. 

Most of the time, however, aggressive cyclists like me (even when we grow old and necessarily slow down) are fixated on going someplace fast. Although we are ever alert, we are watching the road, avoiding the hazards, paying attention to motor vehicles and pedestrians, and noticing other cyclists who may be going faster, all of which keep us from cycling slowly enough to see the details of the places we are cycling though,  to hear the quiet noises (like the hum of electricity in wires), and follow trails that lead to odd places that often reveal secrets about the built environment in which we live.

The  cycling that Stilgoe recommends is a gentler, quieter, easier way to get around, more like walking than traveling by automobile. It is a mode of exploration.

This kind of cycling “begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind…Bicycle to the store, then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory…”

You get the drift. “Read the book,” Stilgoe tells his readers, “then go. Go without purpose. Go for the going.”

There is “a particular magic” to riding like this, the professor assures his readers. “Unlike the surging glow of the walker or bicyclist racing against other walkers or bicyclists, or racing against times established a week or year before, but nonetheless akin to the rush an athlete experiences, the explorer flushes at noticing something—a tiny detail like a trace of pollution in a nearby brook, a hole roughly cut through the chain-link fence guarding the power-line station…”

Even though I rarely cycle in the exploration mode, Stilgoe has come close to persuading me that this kind of cycling would enrich my enjoyment of two-wheeled travel. Inadvertently, it has already happened in my cycling through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region and on longer journeys where I have to improvise my own route.

I can’t speak as an expert on exploration, but here’s my list of ideas that can help riders like me turn cycling into the liberal art of exploration.

  1. Go slowly enough to see, hear, and smell. When savored, the immediate world can overwhelm the senses. We don’t have to go very far to experience a multitude of sensations.
  2. Use a bicycle that is adapted to exploration: wide tires with moderate pressure, fenders, lights, and a front-mounted bag to carry things.
  3. After the ride, make notes not only of what we have seen heard, smelled, and touched but also of their impact upon us and the ideas that they are prompting.
  4. Enjoy the anonymity that comes to the cyclist and also the comradery that emerges as we meet cyclists and other people along the way.
  5. Don’t be a slow poke all of the time. Riding fast and covering long distances also have their rewards.

I’m going to try Stilgoe’s gentle approach to cycling. Exploration does sound rewarding and fun. But as long as I can, I’m going to keep on riding fast most of the time. Why?

Because that’s what aggressive cyclists do!


Essential Catholicity and the Christian Church

October 24, 2011

 Every social movement is empowered by a vision that expresses the central ideas and purposes of its founders.  This vision draws others into close association and together they begin the process of moving from vision to ongoing social movement. That process inevitably includes the developing of institutional forms that carry it forward into the social setting. In this process, however, the vision always is modified and in danger of being displaced by new commitments that arise in the life of the continuing institution. Furthermore, as the social setting changes, the vision also must be restated in order to give direction and power to the ongoing movement that it originally inspired.

From its origins in the work of Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), the Disciples of Christ movement has been empowered by the vision of Christian unity. Its most succinct statement is in Proposition One of the Declaration and Address: That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.” In this and the further propositions which he set forth, Thomas Campbell articulated a point of view that can be called essential catholicity.

Leadership in this movement devolved upon his son Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) who shaped the ecclesial implications which simultaneously embodied and constricted the vision. More than any other, the younger Campbell defined, on the basis of his study of the New Testament, the elements of “gospel order”: baptism by immersion of penitent believers for the remission of sins, the every Lord’s day Lord’s supper, a congregationally based ministry of elders, deacons, and evangelists, and self-sufficient congregations linked in informal networks of common faith and practice.

By the second century of the Disciples movement, the time had come to restate this vision of unity—in order to free it from the institutional shackles that had emerged over the course of four generations and to give it a new expression suitable for a greatly changed social setting. The person who led the way was the long-time Baltimore pastor Peter Ainslie (1867–1934) who, in the Disciples’ General Convention of 1910, “stirred the Disciples with a dramatic call to return to their original commitment to the cause of Christian union and to take steps toward realizing that purpose.”

Ainslie inspired the creation of the Disciples’ Commission on Christian Unity, founded and edited a quarterly journal dealing with Christian unity, lectured widely, and published three books on unity. His understanding of Christian unity developed throughout his ministry until he became, to use the descriptive title suggested by Charles Clayton Morrison, “a catholic protestant.” Ainslie came to believe that all Christians should practice Christian unity and that the result would be that they would find ways to overcome the divisions over doctrine, worship, and other matters.

He began to plead, Morrison observed, “for a catholic church membership, a catholic creed, a catholic administration of the eucharist, and a catholic ministry.” He turned against the efforts to base Christian unity on agreements on doctrine or other matters. “Only when Christians turn from a book church, a dogmatic church, a historic church, to the real church, the living church, the church of which Christ is actually the Head, can they find catholicity and a mode of ecclesiastical behavior acceptable to him whose body the church is.”

Although Ainslie was not a systematic thinker, three Disciples theologians—near contemporaries of Ainslie’s—developed similar expositions of the Disciples’ vision of Christian unity:  Frederick D. Kershner (1875–1953), William Robinson (1888–1963), and Charles Clayton Morrison (1874–1966). Each of these theological leaders sought to reclaim Thomas Campbell’s vision and to present it in a new way that suited the religious and social conditions of the first third of the twentieth century.

To read the full essay, click here The Disciples Vision of a United Church.


Remembering Repack

October 20, 2011

Although I am a committed roadie, with no experience riding mountain bikes, I gladly join with people around the world in celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first running of Repack, the short-lived but legendary race that inspired a new kind of bicycling. The first Repack Race was staged on Pine Mountain, a foothill of Mount Tamalpais, on October 21, 1976.

For several years, a group of young, athletic, competitive guys living in Marin County north of San Francisco had been modifying clunker bikes. They stripped off unessential parts, added items from other bikes, put on bigger tires, and engineered new components when the ideas struck them. They used these two-wheeled machines for hard-core cycling off of the paved roads, on trails and over broken ground where bicycles had rarely been ridden previously. Everything on these bikes had been used before, but as Robert Penn puts it, “no one had put them together, on one frame, with the specific aim of blitzing downhill, off-road.”

The most challenging of the courses was a footpath that dropped 1200 feet within two miles, with an average gradient, Penn reports, of 14%. The course received its name because these early bikes used coaster brakes and by the time cyclists reached the bottom of the course they had worked the brake so much that the grease in the brake hub had been burned out and the hub had to be repacked.

The important people in the mountain bike legend were there—Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Tom Richey, Otis Guy, Wende Cragg, and Alan Bonds. That first race was a time trial, with people leaving at two-minute intervals. They bombed their way down the course, “on the dirt and gravel, over bare rock and gullies, ruts, roots and boulders, at average speeds of over 25 mph, down slopes of up to 20 per cent.”

Alan Bonds, the only one not to crash, won, and his dog came in second. There were twenty-five more Repack races, the last one in 1984. Altogether not more than 250 people participated in these events. The trail is still there and, as far as I know, can still be traveled by people with the right kind of bike and plenty of nerve.

It didn’t take long for the design of mountain bikes to be improved and for manufacturing to go big time. Just when the early 1970s surge back to bicycles, bottomed out, mountain bikes came on strong and saved the bicycle industry from disaster.

My conversion to cycling as an adult sport was to road bikes and by the time that mountain bikes came along, I was committed to riding light weight, skinny tire, drop handlebar bikes. I’ve neither owned nor ridden a mountain bike. Yet, I honor the Northern California bunch of guys who pioneered the mountain bike. The specialized machine they developed contributes to the energy and excitement of the sport I love.

Hurray and halleluia.


The Changing Culture of Mainline Worship

October 17, 2011

With the encouragement and help of Robert Cornwall, four columns from my online journal have been edited into an essay with the title  “The Changing Culture of Mainline Worship.” (To read the essay, check Sharing the Practice.)

Bob edits Sharing the Practice, a journal, which is published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy, and this article appears in the fall issue of the journal. Sharing the Practice contains a wide range of material, as the Table of Contents below indicates. It’s well worth checking out! (The current APC link brings up the summer issue and my essay appears in the fall issue. The link above accesses a pre-publication pdf of the entire fall 2011 issue. )

Columns From the Editor, Robert Cornwall, APC 2  Academy News, Willard Roth, FAPC 13   Musings of Franz Bibfeldt, FAPC 15   From the Academy President, David Imhoff, APC 28

Articles The Changing Culture of Mainline Worship, by H. Keith Watkins 3   God’’s Surprise (A Hymn), by Rebecca Littlejohn 7   On a Celtic Pilgrimage: Recovering an Ancient Spiritual Practice, by David Nash, FAPC 8   The Royal Wedding: A Review, by Lawton W. Posey, FAPC 10   A Thanksgiving Prayer, by Rebecca Littlejohn 14

Reviews Albert Cutie, Dilemma. Robert R. LaRochelle 16   Willis Jenkins and Jennifer McBride, Bonhoeffer and King, Paul J. Binder, APC  16   Gabriel Fackre, The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr, 3rd ed., Glenn L. Borreson, APC 17   Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma, Willard E. Roth, FAPC 18   Ronald Higdon, From Faith to Fear, William Powell Tuck, FAPC 19   Christopher Stanley, The Hebrew Bible, Jerrod Hugenot, APC 20   Lisa Isherwood, The Fat Jesus, John F. LaVoe, APC 21   The Lutheran Study Bible, John E. Hugus, APC 21   Daniel C. Maguire, The Horrors We Bless, John E. Hugus, APC 22   Riley Walker & Marcia Patton, When the Spirit Moves, Robert D. Cornwall, APC 22   Howard Markman, et al., Fighting for your Marriage, John E. Hugus, APC 23   Rob Bell, Love Wins, Robert D. Cornwall, APC 23  Bruce G. Epperly, Starting with Spirit, Robert D. Cornwall, APC 24   Douglas Walrath, Displacing the Divine, Glenn L. Borreson, APC 25   Nelson Searcey and Jason Hatley, Revolve, Barbara Hedges-Goettl, APC   26 Gerald Sloyan, Why Jesus Died, John E. Hugus, APC 27


Harvest Century 2011

October 13, 2011

Harvest Festival

On North Valley Road a couple of miles outside of Newberg, Oregon, you had to choose. Turn left, and you headed back toward the fairgrounds where you started, for a day’s bike ride of 73 miles. Turn right and you had chosen irrevocably to do the long ride, 103 miles before journey’s end. I say “irrevocably” because a few miles after you make the turn you would cross the Willamette River, and then you had no choice but bicycle on to the next crossing, the Canby Ferry some twenty miles distant.

There was only a little doubt which way I would turn. The Harvest Century, which bills itself as “the last organized ride of the season,” was my best chance of doing my birthday ride, which is a mile for every year, and this year is my 80th. Equally important, I had to prove to myself, since it had been seven months since I had done a century, that I can still bike that far in a day.

Judging by the bib numbers I saw, there were some 1,200 cyclists out for the day. While some of them were doing the short family fun ride and others the 45 miler, a substantial number were doing the long rides and with me would have to choose which way to turn.

The weather was overcast and cool, with wisps of fog swirling around the base of the Coast Range foothills. The course itself was as nice as any I’ve seen, doing a wide circuit around some of the most beautiful orchard and wine growing country anyplace. Lots of easy rollers, but no grades that required long and serious climbing.

A dad and his thirteen year-old son reminded me of my early days as adult cyclist with my fourteen-year-old son. I played tag with a man on a titanium recumbent; I passed him going up hills and he scooted past me on the downhill side. I rode a mile or two with three or four couples, the man always in front.

I tailed along behind one couple long enough to engage in a little conversation with the slender, youthful wife—fortyish, I suspected by her cycling style and appearance. I could scarcely believe her when she said they were celebrating their anniversary, number 38, to be exact! At the supper after the ride, we ate together. Seeing them face to face, I concluded that maybe they were old enough to have been married that long, but they still looked wonderful.

A woman in he late twenties at the table told us that she started cycling a year ago and loves it. This was her eleventh century ride of the summer!

My Mercian bicycle, a forty-year-old steel English touring model, stood out in a crowd of modern carbon fiber bikes. We’ve traveled close to 125,000 miles together, that bike and I. How could I use another for my birthday ride?

As we approached the main lunch break at mile 42, my legs were beginning to cramp. If the turnoff would get me to 80, I thought, maybe I should turn left. But the map was clear; this route was only 73 miles. And there really was no way to shorten the long ride. The Willamette River is a fact that has to be accepted as real. So when the time came, I had no choice, really I didn’t. And my legs were better. Right turn, it had to be!

According to my bike computer, I was averaging 15.7 miles per hour on the road, which was fast enough to get me back to the start-finish line in good time. At the snack break by the ferry, a guy much younger than I mentioned that he was averaging 18 mph. I probably could have done it when I was his age, I thought to myself.

The banks on either side of the ferry are very steep. On the other side, I tarried a little while the forty other cyclists on that trip across the river rode up the hill. When they were out of sight, I decided to walk to the top, thus saving my legs for the rest of the ride.

I started the Harvest Century at 7:20 am and finished at 4:00: eight hours and forty minutes total elapsed time, exactly seven hours on the bike. I slowed down a little during the latter part of the ride so that my average overall was 14.9 mph.

OK for an old guy like me, I decided, and drove home a happy man.


Adaptability in Worship: Learning from an Ancient Sun-Belt City

October 9, 2011

An Ancient Solution to a Modern Conundrum

 The population of American cities is undergoing a remarkable change. The 2000 census made this clear when it reported that non-Hispanic whites are now a minority of the total population living in the 100 largest American cities. This change in complexion, says Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, is “fueling a renaissance in some urban centers and forcing civic leaders to confront wrenching decisions on how to cope with a new and fast-changing citizenry.” Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution declares that this change “has enormous implications for cities’ fiscal strength, economic vitality and political influence.”[1] Similar changes are taking place in smaller communities, too.

Travel across the southern tier of our country—from San Diego to Florida—and the language you will ordinarily hear in fast food restaurants and convenience groceries is Spanish rather than English until you reach East Texas, and there the accent is so southern that many travelers will find it difficult to comprehend what people are saying.

The dramatic character of these changes in color and language momentarily diverts attention from another complicating factor in American life: the emergence of a mainstream culture that combines several qualities based on the protest movements of the middle decades of the twentieth century. Although it had been developing strength for some decades, this revolt against tradition exploded during the 1950s and 1960s and has been consolidating its gains for nearly half a century.[2]

As one cadre of youth mature, their distinctive culture mellows, and another cadre of younger people with strange ideas and music pushes forward, which keeps the pot of mainstream culture bubbling. While tensions concerning music and art are often experienced as generational, with young people rebelling against the taste and standards of their parents, the challenge is more than generational, for the very definition of what is good, beautiful, and worthwhile is changing

These two changes have impacted mainline protestant churches, long rooted in the mainstream culture of the United States. Our thought patterns, musical styles, and social mores were unified, and schools, government, and other social institutions supported these qualities. Even though we differed in the detail of our churchly life, the mainline churches were all variations of the one dominant culture. On Sunday morning our worship used elements from this culture to praise God and build up the faith of the faithful.

In the 1960s and 1970s, mainline churches were jolted by the Woodstock generation, but recovered their balance by establishing a second mode of worship—one using soft folk music and liturgical styles that were more intimate and individualistic than those that prevailed in standard protestant worship. Here and there, a few mainline churches continue to flourish on the basis of these traditional patterns of worship.

The more common condition, however, is that the culture has moved on while the churches have remained unchanged, with diminishing and aging memberships the result. We now are facing two challenges. Many congregations are finding that their long-time effort to maintain two styles of worship within one congregation is no longer useful.

Furthermore, we are discovering that both kinds of worship—what we have called traditional and contemporary—are failing to reach the unchurched people of our communities. The culture that once was dominant is being pushed aside, and a new culture that combines the youth culture of rebellion and the exotic cultures of minorities is becoming the norm.

What are we to do? My proposal is that we start by examining a case study:  cultural conflict and liturgical change in Corinth, an ancient community much like the sun-belt cities of contemporary America. Perhaps the troubles of this church early in Christian history can help us find a way to deal with the troubles that we experience today as American culture is changing the rules for how we plan and conduct our worship.

To read the entire essay, click Adaptability in Worship.


[1] Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, April 30, 2001, A1, 17.

[2] David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Random House, 1993).


The American Eucharist, Ambiguous Sign of Unity

October 4, 2011

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that there often is a sharp contrast between the explanation that people give concerning important rituals and the facts that can be observed by the people who watch a ritual in progress. When observers discern this conflict they are challenged to deeper thought in order to solve the puzzle: Why is it that when people say one thing about their ritual, they do something else?

In the worship of American churches this puzzle is most fully illustrated by the celebrations of the Eucharist. Beginning in Scripture and continuing through the history of the Church, it has been affirmed that the Eucharist is the sign of our unity in Christ: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10:17).

In the Roman Catholic Church this unitive function is demonstrated. Despite the variegated character of this church, with its many orders and societies resembling Protestant denominations, priests and people alike are able to join together in the celebration of the Mass. Furthermore, the Mass is clearly at the central point in Catholic piety and religious life and practice, as can be seen in technical theology, pastoral writings, congregational program, and in the regular Christian practice of Catholics.

Yet the characteristic forms of American Protestantism do not display this same kind of unity with respect to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These churches have developed a way of worship that is non-eucharistic in its character. When Protestants come together for liturgical purposes, they unite in the singing of hymns, praying, and preaching. Throughout the history of Protestantism in this country, the Eucharist has been a sign of disunity rather than of unity.

The above paragraphs come from a paper that I wrote as part of a volume of essays honoring Ronald E. Osborn, who had been my mentor for many years. His interest in the liturgical life of the church helped shape my own continuing studies in this field.

In the paper, I discuss reasons for this ambiguity in the American Eucharist. I then point to one group of churches—those in the Stone-Campbell Movement to which Osborn and I both belonged—that have tried (without success) to reverse the process. I also suggest some of the possibilities for recovery of eucharistic unity in our own time.

The Disciples Seminary Foundation, original publisher of the paper, has kindly granted permission for it to be published in my online journal. To read the paper click THE AMERICAN EUCHARIST.