Sunday, February 21, 2021

Giving Up, Giving In, or Getting Into?

This is a multiple purpose piece. It originated as part of Lenten Reflections distributed to people affiliated with the 2 congregations I currently serve. It was also submitted to the Hillsboro Banner newspaper of Hillsboro ND for my rotation of "Forward in Faith", a weekly article shared by the Hillsboro clergy.

I realize other people outside of the aforementioned groups read this blog. So, if it your first reading, GREAT! If you have read it before, you can go onto the next part of your day.  Stay well!

Years ago I could drive down the highways in peace and quiet. At some point rumble strips came into being. Oh, the annoyance. Yes, I realize the major safety factor associated with them. Yes, I know that is simple to implement. However, as I enjoy the freedom of the open road listening to podcasts and music while scanning the scenery, the displeasure of rumbling stifles my mood. And if it not me, it is the tractor trailer ahead of me riding the rumble strips. I understand their purpose. I also cherish my freedom to relax and drive.

There is an ancient practice of giving up something for Lent. Yup, approximately 45 days of self-imposed discipline. It is encircled by the idea of Jesus giving up so much for us miserable sinners that we can at least give up something for 45 days. A Google search brought me an interesting article from Country Living magazine. I know, what is the connection between Country Living and Lent? I found it ironic that one of the items they suggested giving up was social media and the internet. They also suggested soda, single use plastic, clutter, gossip, negativity, and coffee. At least they did not mention SPAM! Oh, that probably falls under the meatless Friday category. The nasty smell of salmon loaf emanating from the elementary school cafeteria still makes me cringe! At least we now have plant based meats. Goodbye salmon loaf!

Ruble strips and setting aside some for 45 days have their purpose. Human beings need to investigate their freedoms. Yet if you are like me, I will choose the freedom of my own decisions. I will accept the natural consequences of my choices. At a "church affiliated" college where I held residence for 1 year, a group of students gave up sobriety for Lent. The Pabst Blue Ribbon delivery truck was at their housing complex three times a week. The beer distributor was saddened when Easter arrived. The group of students were glad to have fewer headaches, clearer thinking, and more nutritious calories. Passing through the days of Lent indeed brought changes!

Modifying choices on a limited basis does not usually create lasting change. There is an account of Jesus' interaction with a sinful woman (John 8). The exchange between Jesus and the assembled Scribes and Pharisees (religious elite) goes like this:

"Let the one among you who is sinless throw the first stone." Those gathered look at each other. Jesus turns away for a brief time. He then notices the crowd had dispersed. Now the dialog between and the woman goes like this:

"Has no one condemned you?"

"No one."

"Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more."

No condemnation! Acceptance of the person. Did the woman live a sinless life from that time forward? Could that even be a possibility? Would condemnation reappear at some time? Did the Scribes and Pharisees change their perspectives about sinful people?

We have vast freedoms. We have life, energy, insight, choices, and opportunities pulsing through our bodies. Rumble strips and self-discipline are real. Yet, I sense God frees us to experience the vastness of the gifts provided. Getting towed out of ditches and recovering from hangovers are important times of consequential insight. Lasting change comes from inside gracious and unwavering relationships, especially with God. Neither do I condemn you.

Go and live some more! Get into life!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

More Than Pushing Pedals


Easy section
In July 2017, I participate in what was then called The Trans South Dakota Bikepacking Expedition. It is now called the Trans South Dakota Race. The format is the same. The event directors, Joe and Tina Stiller exhibit the qualities of welcome, hospitality, and compassion in all circumstances. 

I found this writing on a flash drive which I was cleaning up for other purposes. It not only brought back memories, but still captures of essence of spirituality in daily events. The pictures are from the initial part of my journey. This writing is dated August 4, 2017.

I knew before it started that the Trans South Dakota Bikepacking Expedition would be a challenge. I had made my goals for each day. The goals did not seem extreme in my mind. In many ways I thought they would be attained, though with strong effort.

Less than an hour after leaving the start in Beulah, Wyoming my expectations were challenged. My legs felt weak and my heart rate was elevated beyond the usual for biking. Walking became the method for lowering my heart rate. However, those steps became the breeding ground for negative self-talk. I focused on being mindful of my setting, the opportunity of freedom and exploration, and simply placing one foot in front of the other and making one revolution of the crank to move me forward. 

There were many miles of single track. More than I anticipated. Pushing an overloaded bike over and around fallen trees became its own mental and physical challenge. Afternoon rains, gooey mud, and searching for a pannier that had bounded off the rack had my first day ending in the Spearfish Canyon. All other participants were miles ahead of me. 

Day 2 was pushing the heavy bike up rocky trails that mountain goats would not use. I could finally see the town of Lead ahead. This was a major boost until I missed a turn, descending about a mile down a steep grade. In order to participate each rider had to remain on course going back to the point of deviation. Now I was gaining altitude pushing a bike and losing attitude! I continued and made it to the Big D Sinclair station. The workers at the station had way more compassion and hospitality than I expected. They assured me that others who stopped did not look any better than myself.  At last the Michelson Trail and getting to Hill City as the sun was setting. Behind my goals but still upright!

Mt Rushmore and the Pig Tail Highway was a battle in all aspects. Climbing, pedaling, pushing, and screaming down the curving pavement. I quickly learned the skills of proper braking techniques. I lived with the gnawing sense that I would be off the GPS route at any time. Thus caution reigned. The graciousness of ranch residents allowing me access to their water source made the final push to the Hermosa RV Campground manageable. It was here that I connected with 2 other participants, Giorgio and Silvia. At least I was not alone!

Silvia + Giorgio
  Hermosa to Ft. Pierre was a long, hot, pain-filled, and insightful trip. The 3 days were filled with peaks and depths in all aspects of a journey. Riding with two others even when communication was difficult (They live in Italy) was a great boost for me. Silvia stopped her adventure prior to Ft Pierre. Giorgio and I continued the long, hot push. I sensed that I was going to crash and burn (especially burn) prior to reaching our destination. A teenager who was practicing roping with a metal steer was an unsuspecting personal hero. His willingness to provide rest in the shade, copious amounts of iced water, and conversation provided needed respite from my heat induced stupor. 

Reaching Ft Pierre and following the GPS to the destination of a provided campsite, I came headlong into Joe Stiller and Silvia. They were looking for Giorgio and myself. We all had mandatory tracking beacons so they saw our "dots." I had persuaded Giorgio to go ahead of me to Ft Pierre, as I was straining in the harsh conditions. My stop to recover with the roping guardian angel was unknown to Giorgio. My body and spirit were baked. I did not come close to any of my goals. 

I do not call these races. For me they are events. There were previous events that I did not complete. When that occurs the person is listed as "DNF" (did not finish). I told Joe that my journey was ending. His response, "Tomorrow you'll packraft down the Missouri River to Pierre. You will then officially arrive at Checkpoint #1." There was no mention of DNF in ensuing conversations. Joe said multiple times that he wants participants to complete their journey, meet their goals, and finish the ride to North Sioux City. I never heard him mention DNF.

Joe's words were those of acceptance. His acceptance was greater than my fears. In a world where we are constantly placing labels of success and failure, winners and losers upon people, I was taken back by Joe's words of understanding. He understood the journey was more than a finish line.

As a pastor, I needed to hear these words. These are not just Joe's words, but God's words. God wants us to be on and in the journey of life. God understands limits and frustrations. Goals are good. Planning is necessary. However, it is experiencing the people and places along the journey that enhance life. There are variances off the "set course." There are times when others are not strangers but sustainers for the journey. Even when communication is difficult and self-talk can move in the direction of despair, life is more than a race. It is a series of events. 

I completed the journey across South Dakota in July 2018, once again with the help of Joe + Tina, my wife, and gracious sustainers.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Live & Die Healthy

Moving into February means additional minutes of daylight grow rapidly. Over the month about 80 minutes of daylight are added in this area. Along with brightening the landscape, melting snow, and boosting my mood the need for lights and reflective materials lessen. Yet, I have learned over many years of foot and bike travel that reflective material is an everyday asset. 

Road ID Reflective Strap
Digging around a bin full of gear (too much gear) I discovered one of my first purchases of a reflective band. I have wider and brighter ones which is why this one was relegated to a bin. However, this one serves as an identification source (medical information + contacts) as well as being reflective. The motto which I chose to fill out the metal plate provided plenty of mental reflection as I brought it back into use. This piece of gear is about 15 years old. Thus it made me ask, "Have I been living and dying in a healthy manner?"

It may seem counter-intuitive to think of dying healthy. However, at the time the band was purchased I was working as a healthcare chaplain. I had also worked as a hospice chaplain and treatment center chaplain. I have been in situations too numerous to count where the dying person and their loved ones were not healthy. The physical realities of stress, hydration and caloric choices, and exercise along with emotional and spiritual maladies which accumulated over the years made a pain-filled, anguished, and desolate death, even when surrounded by people. 

Early Years
Reviewing the past often is not glamorous nor pleasant. Even though my past does not define my present, I cannot be in a healthy place unless I investigate and own previous patterns of thoughts and behaviors. The cute boy in the picture held more internal angst than his frame indicates. The sibling arguments and physical altercations were normal. They were usually short-lived and forgotten. Yet, I always held a desire to beat my older brothers at something. The internal struggles were more difficult to wrestle. It was into the fourth decade of my life when internal health began to take root and blossom. The feelings of inadequacy, the unresolved hypocrisy, and festering fury were faced with new resolve. There was no reason to deny the thoughts and actions. I could not begin being healthy until I looked clearly at myself. 

The late author, James Baldwin wrote, "To accept one's past - one's history - is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.

My understanding of "Live & Die Healthy" is not static. Health incorporates, as well as embraces change and growth. My outlook on the external and internal aspects of my being fosters health. Daily reflections are not for others to see me, but for building a foundation that is secure in the midst of what happens around me. As Epictetus said, "Circumstances don't make the man, they only reveal him to himself." My life can be as cyclical as the daylight in the Northern Plains. However, I do not have to revert into old practices and attitudes. Healthy becomes woven in the fabric of life, past, present, and future. The deep connection with reality as it is, instead of escaping from it is what I want to reflect. It is the soil in which my foundation is laid. 

Trans South Dakota Race
These words from the book, "Everything is Spiritual" by Rob Bell, "Our lives are loaded from the beginning with history and drama and love and wounds and tragedy and hope. I'm mysterious enough to myself, let alone the ones I come from - We never stop leaving who we are and how we've been shaped by the people and places we come from. Our hearts and minds and memories are endlessly explorable."  

I invite you to reflect, explore, and live & die healthy!