Bicycle race“Here I am again. What does it mean to do this in Christ?”

This was my thought as I rode my carbon-fiber bicycle on the streets of Torrance on Sunday afternoon. I was nervously warming up for my first bicycle race after having been away from the sport for 19 years. Many things were familiar and came back to me automatically: pinning the race number on my jersey so the wind wouldn’t catch it, calming myself as I rode around the course, checking how the wind was blowing, and sliding in to the start line so as to be in the front.

The race was a timed event, 50 minutes of racing around the six-corner, 1-mile, L-shaped course on city streets, called a criterium (we covered about 22 miles, about 26 mph average). It was windy. About 50 or 60 riders were in this race for the Masters 35+, which means you had to be at least 35 years old. We slow down with age (in case you haven’t noticed). I wanted to make sure I didn’t crash, didn’t get dropped, and maybe I could be competitive and not be just a pack-filler along for the ride.

So, my question during the warm-up: What does it mean to do this in Christ? I had been growing as a young Christian when I raced once upon a time two decades ago. But my identity was mostly wrapped up in my performance as an athlete. What was different now? I was doing the race mostly to help motivate me to keep riding so I can be healthy for decades to come, but what else was different from my earlier life?

My return to an earlier setting of life is similar to what God has called others to do in the Bible. Onesimus had to go back to Colossae and his master Philemon. Moses had to go back to Egypt. Jacob went back to Canaan. Naomi went back to Bethlehem. Mary went back to Nazareth. Paul went back to Jerusalem and Antioch. Barnabas went back to Cyprus. Jesus went back to Nazareth.

When God takes people back, there is often reluctance on our part. Going home or back to some place we’ve left long ago involves facing old wounds, old illusions, and acknowledging both the great changes that have taken place for us, and that we remain the same people, easily drawn back into old habits. I’ve no doubt that God’s work in progressively sanctifying people often involves taking us back into the old situations, allowing us to retrace our steps. In this, we discover how we’ve changed, and we have the opportunity to respond to situations differently, in Christ, now that we are different. It’s an experience of affirmation from God that His changes in us are substantial and durable, and we feel this keenly when we return to the old setting. Things there are largely the same, but I am different in Christ.

At the race, I noticed the absence of anger in myself. People do stupid and selfish things that are often dangerous to many others in a race. Normally, that would have made me very hostile, even furious. When I didn’t win (a breakaway of four riders got clear about halfway through, so the rest of us were riding for fifth place), I didn’t feel the familiar letdown and disappointed frustration I had known years ago. It was common for my whole life to depend on whether I won a race or not. Even in the best seasons, the elation and satisfaction following a win would only last until the next race, one week later. Another chance to fail.

By contrast, I think I’m mostly clear of that now. During the race I heard my 9-year old daughter screaming two octaves above high C to cheer me on. I could tell I was not nearly strong enough to be competitive, but this didn’t bother me much. Lots of old reflexes came back, and this was satisfying. It was just a thing to do, which helps me to keep riding, which I hope will help me to keep up in parenting, marriage, teaching, and church life. I was exhausted and satisfied to come in 20th place.

Since having turned my back on racing two decades ago to take up vocational ministry, it was hard to think about riding ever again. Any time I took to the road there came along with me lots of ghosts and disappointments. The ever-present competitive drives ruined the delight of physical exercise, seeing blue skies, and moving swiftly along roads of all sorts on skinny tires. A year ago things began to change and I found myself able to ride again, to return to the old setting gradually, and to do it all in Christ. Riding regularly for an hour or more is an outlet that I’ve found balances my un-athletic work as a theology professor. I am able to pray, meditate, and relax in ways that refresh me totally on the bike, from week to week. It’s good for my physical heart and my spiritual heart both.

So, I’m glad to have something as a counterpoint to academic ministry that keeps me physically strong and refreshed so I can be emotionally and intellectually (spiritually) relaxed and enthusiastic. Some of that time I invested decades ago is now paying dividends in giving me this outlet and counter to my sedentary modern lifestyle. And I may be competitive some day, just as a fun thing that keeps me healthy and available for God’s uses. God redeems the whole self, even the toxically ambitious and viciously competitive athlete that I was, for His purposes now and forever (Rom 8:28-29).