It was a dark and overcast; the clouds hung heavy in the air above me, blotting out the moon and stars on this early autumn evening. My only company was my breathing and my heartbeat, both laboured because the hills of the North Yorkshire Moors can be as steep as 1 in 3. For a moment I thought about the loneliness: the isolation of cycling through narrow moorland lanes. Then I remembered a Psalm…
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139 verses 11 to 12
Once upon a time I felt the idea of an omniscient God who was watching over us was like a veiled threat, used by religious types as an uncomfortably passive-aggressive reason for “being good” and going to church. God and Santa Claus merge into one in the lyrics of “Santa Claus is coming to town”. It is horrendous. But here I was, cycling into the lonely, cold, dark night, when the Psalm took on a different perspective. In the same way a clever drawing can look like a vase or two people face-to-face, the shift in perspective revealed something I’d never noticed before. It wasn’t that I can’t hide from God… it is that there is no where I can be lost from God.
I love riding my bike. Whether it is loading up a touring bicycle with all my camping gear and winching myself uphill at walking pace, or pouring every ounce of energy into my pedals to cover 10 miles in the shortest time I can possibly manage. Whether it is commuting in the rain, with a bright red cape keeping me dry, embarking on an endurance adventure like Lands End to John o’Groats, or riding one of many long distance events that happen each weekend.
Like many people, I had a bike as a kid, but grew out of cycling when something else came along. I had a BMX and learned to make it jump, wheelie or ride it ‘no hands’ when the fear of getting hurt didn’t matter. It was much later in life, when I was significantly overweight, that I returned to cycling in the purchase of a £100 full-suspension Raleigh mountain bike. It was amazing. Sure, it weighed more than I did and bounced in time with my pedalling – back and forth like a comedy clown bike – but it was a bike and I was riding again. I’d take it for 5 to 10 miles around the nearby lanes and come back with the same grin I’d once had as a kid. There was no one to measure myself against: there was only me, a bouncy bike, and freedom.
Later I learned that I could go further if I had a more efficient bike, so for £250 I bought a Giant bicycle of the hybrid style. Now I could ride faster and before long I was riding 50 miles. I could make it from Teesside to Helmsley for cake, and back again in one day. The revelation of self-propelled travel and the feeling of achievement was like a breeze behind me, carrying me ever further.
While it is wonderful to have company on a bike ride, there are inevitable moments when I’m moving along on my own – and at these times my body gets on with the practical aspects of balancing and steering while my mind wanders. It is in these moments that I find myself contemplating the complexities of the world and reflecting on the nature of God.
I’ve had many experiences of feeling that God had drawn close to me, the most recent was when I was caught between two storms with the wind lashing me to the side of the road. I felt vulnerable and simultaneously held in the palm of God’s hand. It spoke to me of the contradiction of human experience: to be made in the image of God but to feel alone in the Universe, seeking meaning.
Once I was on a cycling pilgrimage, taking two weeks to ride from Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey. I was stopping at as many sites of Celtic Christian heritage as possible, and relying on the hospitality I found along the way. One lunchtime, in the scorching heat, I had failed to refill my water bottles and was becoming dehydrated. As I reached the top of a minor climb, the view before me opened out with Scottish mountains and islands.
I just stopped and found myself saying a prayer of thankfulness for where I was. As I prayed, I noticed a lamb beside the road, a lamb which seemed lost. There was no sign of the mother but for some reason I remembered the story of Abraham and Isaac: how God provided what was needed on the mountain side. Fear not dear reader, I didn’t sacrifice the lamb as a burnt offering (that would have been weird) but as I cycled on I knew that I’d be okay. Then, literally round the next corner, a couple were bird-spotting beside the road. They had a car full of water and (oddly) energy bars. After they generously refuelled me I discovered we had mutual friends through work – the world felt very small and God felt very present at that time.
While the activity of cycling has remained physically straight-forward and conceptually repetitive, my relationship with cycling has evolved. At first it was all about speed. Later it was all about distance. For a while it became a bodily form of worship or prayer, later it became a metaphor for spiritual endurance… and I might add that was one of the hardest times of my cycling life. Most recently I’ve returned to the concepts of adventure and joy. In many ways, cycling has not changed, but my headspace when cycling has influenced my physical experience. For example, an overnight bike ride from Slaithwaite to Blackpool and back is much more joyful as an adventure than it is as a feat of endurance.
This shift of perspective about cycling and this shift of perspective about God have been liberating in their own ways. My relationship with a long bike ride is much more fun. My relationship with God has completely set me free from fear. I can hear wisdom’s voice in the Bible whispering to me of God’s love for the whole of creation – there is nowhere I can be lost from the love of God. There is nowhere anyone can be lost from the love of God.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139 verses 7 to 10
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