I Hate Bikes and You Should Too

In my younger and more vulnerable years (when I was five), I vaguely remember my dad asking me if I wanted to learn how to ride a bike.  Being the borderline cynical realist that I oddly enough was at that age, I took a hard look at my life and weighed my options.  To me, the question wasn’t so much “Would you like to gain this skill which other people your age generally seem to value?”  It was more of “Is the opportunity cost of taking the time to learn how to ride a bike as an obese, clinically unathletic child, worth the amount of time lost, which could be spent playing Starfox 64?”

It seemed like an easy answer to me.  None of my friends lived in biking distance, so that perk was obsolete.  My older siblings both knew how to ride bikes, but I didn’t see them getting anything out of it really.  And to this day, I have no memory of either of my parents riding bikes.  I remember wondering rather conclusively, “Why would I ever bother to learn how to ride a bike?”

The answer to that question came to me seventeen years later, or three days ago, depending on your perspective.  It turns out I would, in fact, bother to learn how to ride a bike, if my new boss is a really great guy who, upon finding out I don’t know how to ride a bike, uses his connections to get me a bike for free, and even volunteers to help teach me how to ride it- all of this happening, of course, during a year when I’m intentionally pursuing new experiences and fleeing my comfort zone, in attempt to grow as a person and further my understanding of the world and my role in it.  It’s really a perfect storm.

I wish I could write something to the effect of, “Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t foresee it happening anytime soon.  Life is good.”
Unfortunately, as you’ve no doubt surmised by the fact that I’m writing this, all of those things have happened, and I am now in the process of learning how to ride a bike as a 22-year-old.

This undertaking has proven to be one of my most frustrating to date, for a number of reasons.  A few years ago, I felt deeply ambivalent about bikes.  I had no relationship with them whatsoever.  Now I do have a relationship with them, and it is one of heated mutual animosity.  That’s not what I wanted to write about though.

In previous conversations I’ve had with friends about learning to ride a bike as an adult, many of them have conjectured that it would be much easier to learn as an adult than as a child, and I could probably figure it out in less than half an hour.  As of today, I can firmly say that I’ve done the science, and they are scientifically wrong.

Obviously, I will never know how difficult it would have been to learn when I was a child.  The only thing I can say with any real certainty is that it would have involved much less profanity, because my vocabulary wasn’t yet up to snuff at that age.

But I can also say that being tall enough for my feet to reach the ground quickly makes it incredibly difficult to resist the urge to step off the peddles every time I start to fall.  I am completely capable of maintaining a sense of comfort, and rather than controlling that, I’ve found it almost impossible to stop myself from returning to it.  For so long, I’ve been comfortable in my inability to ride a bike, and now that I’m ready to leave that comfort, my reflexes are fighting against me on it.  At the age of 22, I’ve already become infallibly comfortable, and I’m finding it hard to learn new tricks.

I’ll tell you right now that this blog doesn’t end with me learning how to ride a bike in one, arduous, but remarkably successful afternoon.  It doesn’t even end with me finally being able to peddle ten feet, after accruing a number of cuts and bruises, but feeling proud of my accomplishments.  It ends with me sweaty and bruised, unable to peddle for more than a few quivering moments, angry at myself after hours of fruitless work, finally walking home with the bike at my side, all the while muttering profanities to myself.  It ends with me standing in the shower for too long, trying to think of a positive spin to put on this story so the people who read this blog will be happy for me.

It ends with me finally giving in to the fact that I am frustrated and unsuccessful.
Looking for the silver linings won’t change that.  Neither will complaining, nor giving up.  In the end, I went back to the library parking lot where I’d just spent hours of frustration, sat down in range of the free public Wi-Fi, and watched an episode of Veggietales on my phone.

It was the episode modeled after the good Samaritan, where Junior the Asparagus helps Larry the Cucumber, even though Junior has a pot on his head, and Larry has a shoe on his.  The silly song is “Oh Where is my Hairbrush,” which I think we can all agree is one of the great classics of my generation.  None of that has anything to do with riding a bike, or not riding a bike, or any of that.  It just made me feel good.  It was a dumb kid show, and I enjoyed it.  I feel like that’s relevant to telling this story, but I’m still not sure why.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back to the library parking lot, and I’ll try again.  Tomorrow night, maybe I’ll write another blog post about how much I hated it.  Maybe it will have a more blatant theological lesson in it that time, but maybe not.

If you ever want to have a full-fledged conversation with me about every reason I think bike-riding is a stupid thing to do and I hate it, hit me up and I’ll be happy to walk down that road with you.  But for now, all I have to say is this-

I am a man deeply rooted in a lifestyle of comfort.  I’ve never thought of myself as someone who shies away from difficulty, but maybe that’s just because so much of my life has been made so easy for me.  As I continue to try to learn to ride a bike, the hardest part will be learning to keep my feet on the peddles, even if it means I’m about to fall.  22 years of privilege and comfort had made me weak in that aspect, and in this, and every other aspect of my YAV year, I pray I will find the ability to fight against that habit.

“For One Another”

One of my assignments with Greater Indy Habitat is to keep a blog about our Interfaith Builds- the very thing that drew me to this placement.

Over the course of participating in a few of the builds, discussing it with a few coworkers and covolunteers, and attending an interfaith dinner, I compiled what eventually became my first draft of my first blog post for Habitat.

That draft ultimately became two different versions of the same post.  One will get uploaded to the Greater Indy Habitat website at some point, and the other is what follows:

 

The peoples of this world are not at a lack for vulnerability.  Our propensity toward apprehension, segregation, and self-isolation is as densely embedded in our personal structures as our own DNA, and though we most often build up these entities of separation and fear as a defensive effort to protect our individual identities, they only ever actually serve to weaken our collective humanity.  Our worries about our vulnerabilities push us into creating further vulnerability for ourselves.  We let our fear of others manipulate our judgment, and create barriers to distance ourselves from one another, chopping off the pieces of humanity that were meant all along to be together as one body.

That was probably a bit too dark of a way to introduce my first post on this blog, so let me change the pace pretty drastically here with what I consider one of the most overarchingly meaningful Bible verses I know:

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
-1 Peter 4:8

“Love covers a multitude of sins.”  That idea is crucial to my understanding of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ death is swathed in that theology, and it is paramount to how I believe we are to respond to that sacrifice.  “Above all,” this is how we are meant to act.  “Above all,” this is how we are meant to think.  “Above all,” this is how we are meant to be.

But there is discord within us.  We dissect the verse and its intentions, consciously or otherwise.  We neglect or misunderstand the motivation, and we question entirely the definition of “one another.”

This compelled me to look into the etymology of the phrase “one another.”  For me, that ultimately meant clicking on the first few links, and checking a few links within those links, after googling the phrase, “’one another’ etymology.”  I didn’t find much, probably because I obviously didn’t try very hard, but one thing that stuck out to me through it was the juxtaposition of the two words involved.  “One” implies unity and similarity.  “Another,” being an early 13th century merger of “an” and “other,” implies separation and difference.

However, when you put these words together (which I just learned started in the 1520s CE, if that’s interesting to anybody), you get a profoundly meaningful combination which often goes overlooked.  Though we are “other,” separated by faith, ethnicity, race, sex, or anything else, we are ultimately still “one.”  We are unified because we are all human.  We are unified because we are all made in the Image of God.  We are unified because, only when we are unified, do we begin to see the full Image of God that is present within us, through us, and between us.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter ten, the parable of the Good Samaritan perfectly illustrates exactly how we are meant to “maintain constant love for one another.”  Though the Samaritan was of a culture which regularly found itself in harsh conflict with the Jewish man’s culture, he loved him well, and saved his life in doing so.  That is the definition of whom we are to love, and how we are to do it.  That is my theological understanding of Peter’s usage of the phrase, “one another.”

The verse in 1 Peter also points to what happens when we fail to love one another though.  The multitude of sins, the thing that separates us from God, distorting the Image of God in us, and drawing geopolitical and cultural borders that get used to define humans as “other,” rather than “one another,” becomes uncovered.  The darker aspects of our humanity, the pieces of us which are overrun by fear and mistrust, are empowered by it.  We see the apprehension, segregation, and isolation I mentioned earlier begin to take hold, and everything that comes with that.

We see men in turbans, getting frisked at the airport and catching glares of mistrust on the streets.  We see women in burkas, forced to change from the emblems of their faith at the beach.  We see people of color, being shot, strangled, and abused, often killed, for no reason, every time we open an internet browser.  We see refugee children, their bodies washed up on the shores of lands that let them die.

But that’s not all we see in this world.

A few days ago, I had the privilege of witnessing and participating in an Interfaith Build with Habitat.  I saw people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs come together in service to their fellow human.  I saw them learn from one another, as they began to grow in understanding of one another’s belief systems, and respect for one another.  I saw people recognize and cherish the similarity in values across faith backgrounds, and I saw them appreciate the differences, without ignoring them, or fighting over them.

Most of all, I saw them build.  I saw people coming together around a wooden frame, and pouring their sweat, energy, and time into making something out of it.  They did it together.  They did it with one another, and in many ways, for one another.

Habitat has found a powerful and radical means of service in these Interfaith Builds.  It’s not just about building houses for people who couldn’t otherwise attain them, though that would be enough.  It’s not just about providing an effective and meaningful outlet for people to serve one another and express their deep-seated values, though that would be enough.  It’s about bringing people together.  It’s about learning from and sharing with one another.  It’s about maintaining constant love for one another, and it has the potential to be the most beautiful thing Habitat’s ever done.

I’m Not Needed

Currently, I am sitting in my new room, in my new home, in a city that’s in a state in which I’d never been before.

Eight days ago, I was sitting in a different room, in another city I’d never been to before.

These two novelties form the bookends of a week of disorientation that will shape the rest of my life, and in particular, my year of service in Indianapolis.

 

Over the course of my experience at Orientation Week (in Stony Point, NY), I heard a number of quips from YAV Alum (YAVA) which could have made great titles for this blog post.  “Screwed Up for Life,” and “I Promise, You Are Not Actually a Good Person,” were top contenders for obvious reasons.  In the end, though, I felt like they were slightly too contextual for the average reader of this blog (my mom and dad).  But when I heard one of the YAVA talk to us about his experience when he arrived at his site, and the first thing he heard from one of the people alongside whom he would be serving being the sentence “You are not needed,” I knew I’d heard one of those rare, encapsulating phrases that meant everything I was trying to learn.

Let me explain.

For as long as there has been Christianity, there have been missions.  These come in many shapes and sizes, and occur in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons.  And for the entire history of the Church, many, if not most of them, have been catastrophically poorly executed.  Sometimes people go for the wrong reasons, sometimes they go and do things that leave the communities they touched far worse off than when they arrived, and sometimes they come home without gaining any understanding of the community where they served, or why that even matters.

While at Orientation, we focused on a number of vital aspects of the coming year.  We had intensive racial sensitivity training, some professional/personal boundary training, and a number of other sorts of training relevant to entering a “year of service for a lifetime of change,” as it says on the back of the shirt I got there.  What I want to focus on for this blog post though, is what we discussed about the purpose and definition of missions, in the context of the Christian Church.

One of the first things we established is that missions are done with, not for.  I am not here to be a hero for people; I am here to let go of some of my privilege, and walk alongside people.  I am here to be a part of a community, to learn from the people who compose it, and to follow their lead in serving that community.  Anything that unjustly promotes, demotes, or excludes anyone is not a part of the mission of Christ.

Eventually, we were given a definition of mission originating from a Congolese pastor whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, which says that mission is “following the border-crossing God in weaving mercy, peace, justice, and love into the common life of all of God’s people, in the way of Jesus Christ.”

That definition is strikingly beautiful, honest, and accurate.  It emphasizes God’s movement, not our own, and displays poetically the vitality of peace and justice in mission work.  Unfortunately, anyone reading it who has taken a class taught by Dr. Rebecca Davis, my college advisor, cannot help but notice a few things it’s lacking.  Therefore, I’ve taken it upon myself to add a bit, making it a definition with which I hope Becky would be satisfied:

Mission work is the divine call of the Christian Church to follow the border-crossing God in weaving mercy, peace, justice, and love into the common life of all of God’s people, by meeting people where they are, joining them in service of the community, and loving them in the way of Jesus Christ, so that we may live out Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, and therein be instruments in revealing God’s Empire on Earth.

 

So that is a taste of a piece of what I gained from Orientation.  I’m going on this “mission” to join the people of this community in our mutual effort to understand and contribute to God’s Empire.  As Lilla Watson puts it,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 

So as I sit in my new room, in my new home, in this new city, preparing for my new job (though I still don’t know what that will be*), I reflect on the fact that I am not here because I am “needed.”

I am here to build relationships.

I am here to learn.

I am here to teach those who could not go with me.

I am here to serve with, and not for.

I am here to love others well.

I am here to experience the love of others.

I am here to let go of things.

I am here to find new things to hold.

I am here to be an instrument for the architect of God’s Empire.

I am here to become whatever I was meant to be.

 

In a sense, I hope never to go back.

 

-Jonathan

 

 

*- When I wrote this, I still had not received my official placement.  I now know I will be serving with the Greater Indy Habitat for Humanity, specifically in expanding their interfaith efforts hopefully.  More on that to come, but here’s a link if you want:

Home – Habitat Page

FAQ

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

First of all- Hi.

This is the blog I’ll be keeping during my Young Adult Volunteer year.  So if you’re someone who wants to learn more about what I’ll be doing over the next year, and why I’ll be doing it, by the end of my YAV experience there should be somewhere between a few, and maybe even more than that, posts to satisfy your curiosity.

I titled this post “FAQ,” not because I have frequently been asked any questions in particular so far, but simply because I’d like to go ahead and address any questions that might come up.

Question 1- Where will you be serving, and what led you to that site?
I will be serving in Indianapolis, Indiana.  I was really drawn to the site mostly because of its focus on interfaith relations.  Not long ago I researched, wrote, and presented on an issue facing the Christian Church for my Capstone project, the culmination of my degree in Christian Education.  I focused my project on the refugee crisis, and in my research I learned a lot about the role interfaith relations play in how well or poorly the Church is able to live out its call in the world.  I believe that improving the relationships between Christianity and other faith backgrounds will do a lot to improve the world we live in, and to love others the way God calls us to.  I am looking forward to being a part of that effort during my time in Indy.

Question 2- What’s with the title of your blog?
“Carrying a Cat by its Tail” is a reference to the Mark Twain quote seen at the top of the main page of my blog.  Over the course of this year, I hope to learn a lot about my role in the world, and how I can serve others.  I spent the last four years of my life at Presbyterian College, where the motto is “While we live, we serve.”  I learned a lot about the value of service while I was there, but now I want to continue that education.  The things I hope to learn during my YAV experience are things I could read about, and have plenty of educated conversations about, but just like carrying a cat by its tail, I will never really understand them and their complete significance unless I experience them.  I hope that those lessons are something I will fully appreciate for the rest of my life.

Question 3- What are your plans after YAV?
I’d be lying if I said buying time to figure out an answer to questions like that wasn’t part of what led me to apply for YAV in the first place.  I honestly have no real clue what I’ll be dong a year and a half from now, but that’s something I expect will change some as a result of my experiences as a YAV.

Question 4- Would you rather be able to fly, but only in doggy-paddle style and at doggy-paddle speeds, or run upwards of a hundred miles per hour, but only for short distances?
Run upwards of a hundred miles per hour for short distances.

Question 5- How can I support you during your year?
This question is a little weird for me because I usually prefer to do things on my own if I think I can swing it.  But I know from what others have told me that this will be a trying year at times, and I definitely will not get through it without help.  For one thing, I need to raise at least $3,000 even to do it in the first place, which is something I obviously can’t do on my own.  If you’d like to help with that, feel free to contact me and I can answer any questions you have and let you know how to direct your funds.  But beyond that, if you want to keep me in your thoughts and prayers, keep up with the blog (as long as I keep up with my end of it), and stay in contact throughout this process, I’d be more than grateful for that.

I want to say that I’m deeply thankful for those of you who have supported me so far, in this and other endeavors, and for those of you who will support me in this as I move forward.  If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about anything, I’d be happy to hear from/talk with you at any point.

Wish me luck.

-Jonathan