Since before I can remember, I have known how to swim, and so it would be disingenuous for me to say that I felt like a drowning child sinking below the surface, struggling for an unencumbered pull of life-sustaining oxygen. My only first-hand experience of not being able to draw a proper breath came to me compliments of a bike ride through some stout Missouri hills. Like a water snake sprung from the Mississippi, old Route 79 connects the river towns of Hannibal at its tail with Louisiana at its head. I rode the contours of its serpentine spine as it climbed up and up and up and out of the Mississippi River for two-and-a-half miles, where it proceeded to plunge just as abruptly back down to its watery origins, only to begin another equidistant ascent up and up and up. I’m not sure if it was the third, fourth, or fifth round of this reptilian rodeo when I felt it turn on me…squeezing coils encircling my chest…choking the breath from my wearied windpipes and the sagging bellows of my lungs.
“Billygoat,” had been the cycling nom de guerre assigned to me by my riding colleagues of three decades. I have taken pride over the years when I would hear the contrails of their voices fall away, “There he goes!” they would say as I passed them on a difficult ascent. Not this time. This time, years later, Paul, then Joe, then Pete each queried as they passed me, “Are you okay?” “Sort of…!” I choked, while doubled over between gulps of air that refused to remain in my lungs long enough to benefit me.
Paul kindly offered the services of his SAG support wife (i.e. “You want me to call Ellen to pick you up?”). Those benevolent words landed on me like an Ash Wednesday sign of the cross seared into my soul, “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” I noted the pangs of humiliation that must accompany the virginal experience of being offered a senior citizen discount for the very first time “I don’t know, Paul. Maybe.” Up until this time, I had never required the services of SAG support to pull me off of a ride.
Over the years, I have learned that the most important riding skill to master has nothing to do with balance, or breaking, pedaling, or positioning. The most important riding skill is spiritual, not physical. It has to do with the attitude that a rider brings to a hill.
Eleven years ago, I was riding with the kindergarten version of my son. His eyes widened in fear as an oncoming stout hill approached. I asked him to slow down a minute. Now was my chance to pass along a hard won piece of cycling wisdom to him. “Son, hills are our friends,” I said. “Each and every hill that you will ever ride on, will speak to you if you will listen.” I was on a roll [pun intended]. “Each and every hill is placed here to teach you something. So when you come to a hill, always ask it what it is that you are supposed to learn.” I concluded my soliloquy with the kind of knowing silence that a tribal elder displays while instructing a young brave just before his vision quest.
At the tender age of five years, my little brave pedaled in silence. I looked over, and it was then that he busted out his very first, precocious little adolescent eye-roll, and responded, “Dad, hills can’t talk!” Slightly deflated, but still unwilling to concede the point, I responded, “Just listen son, see if you don’t hear something.”
We darted downhill together. “That’s right John Harry, get as much speed as you can!” “Keep going! That’s it! One-two-three, one-two-three…” “You’re doing it! Just a little more!” My son made the summit and exclaimed in amazement that the hill, in fact, had told him something after all. In response to the question, “What did the hill tell you?” My son responded, “I’m more powerful than I thought.” Until one month ago, each and every time I have pedaled my bike up an incline, I have listened to the lesson of the hill, and always heard a voice echoing back, “You are much more powerful than you thought.”
This Sunday’s first reading (Joshua 24) contained one of the more famous biblical bumper stickers of all time. Standing before the tribes of Israel, Joshua placed a two choice decision before his Middle Eastern cohorts. Will you serve the local idols and receive all the perks that go with fitting in with your neighbors, or will you follow the One that led our people out of Egypt, embracing all of the joys and challenges that come with that decision? Then came the money shot, “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (24: 15).
On a humid summer’s afternoon almost a month ago, I listened as the mother of all hills spoke to me in a different voice than I had expected, with a different lesson than what I had been hearing for the last ten years. As I waited for the humbling ride home, I drank the water Ellen brought for the riders. I ate alongside my colleagues who were replenishing their stores of carbohydrates for the rest of their demanding ride. In the silence of my heart, I addressed the hill one last time before stepping into the van. Feeling broken and humiliated, I said, “I guess you want me to know that I’m not as powerful as I thought.” Like my son of eleven years ago, I expected to hear nothing but silence in response. That’s not what happened. To my surprise, the hill spoke to me a new message, “There is a different power in you now.”
Immediately, the meaning of this cryptic message was clear to me. A smile broke out across my face. As if I had just received my morning cup of coffee, I woke up. “I’m riding!” I exclaimed. With my water bottles replenished, and a phone tucked into my saddle bag, I assured my cohorts that they should go on ahead of me. On the next hill, as they spurted forward, I dismounted and began the first leg of my biathlon. I would walk whenever I needed, and ride when I could.
Within the very first mile, I discovered the new kind of power that the hill had described. Off to my right, I looked deeply into the lush Midwestern forest and saw how light was cascading through the canopy, dappling the waxy leaves of the forest floor with warm iridescence. I listened to the musical accompaniment of a thousand insects, and exotic birds that never once have found their way into the cities or suburbs. Occasionally, sightlines would open up to reveal the breathtaking Mississippi river valley spread out below me.
As a younger man, the hills taught me important lessons for that time of my life. Now that I have summited the mile marker of fifty-years, the hills are saying something brand new. During one season of life, I was Miguel Indurain (five time Tour de France winner) climbing hills with speed, sinew, and strength. In this new season, I have learned that I am to approach hills more like Gerard Manley Hopkins, reveling in the ever-present beauty of God’s grandeur.
In light of this Sunday’s first reading, it seems to me that the decision to live a wholehearted spiritual life is not made once and for all. Living a wholehearted spirituality across the lifespan requires the ability to listen for new messages along the way. What it means for a newly forming family “to serve the Lord,” has everything to do with fashioning bonds of attachment from the matrix of empathy and parental, and spousal self-donation. In the radically different season of Families Launching Young Adults, what it means “to serve the Lord” shifts dramatically. The lessons of the hills in this phase of life have to do with autonomy, independence, and keeping faith that what was planted long ago will bear its fruit in due season.
This week, could you take the time to have a conversation with a beloved family member, BFF, or mentor? Would you be willing to discuss, “What is the major hill in my life right now?” “What are the lessons this hill is trying to teach me?” “Am I enjoying the scenery along the way, no matter how stout the ascent?”