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Biking as a Lenten practice

By Melissa Bixler

Simeon Stylites is described in Butler's Lives of the Saints as the pillar saint. He didn't get the name by being a pillar of the church. Simeon lived, and died, atop an actual pillar in the desert in Syria. Converted to the monastic life as a child-shepherd, the young man performed a range of humiliations of the flesh in order to train himself in the ways of Christ's poverty. One of the most extreme was tying a rope around his waist until his flesh rotted away in that spot.

St. Simeon makes me feel guilty about my difficulty performing some of the basic spiritual disciplines: fasting, prayer and biblical study. I've heard about these disciplines my whole life, especially at the evangelical church in which I was raised and the evangelical college I attended. At each juncture of my life I have engaged and failed, walking away wondering why I have such a difficult time transforming my "interior castle."

Then I learned the modern discipline of riding my bike. Biking wasn't a big part of my life growing up. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., everything was far away, there was no public transportation and I wasn't willing to spend bike-required energy to get where I needed to be. As a member of upper-middle class Americana I drove my gas-powered '96 Chevy to high school, college and then to graduate school without much of a thought. But that was before America went to war with Iraq. And that was before I met Peter Dula.

Dula was at Duke University to defend his dissertation and give a lecture about his time with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Iraq. He went to the Middle East to teach theology at a Christian college and to write about what he saw and experienced. What my ethics class expected the day he walked to the podium was a message of hope sprinkled with MCC recruitment talk. What we got was the face of war.

Dula was ashen when he addressed us with his typed speech. His voice and his words conveyed the bitterness of the present-day situation in the Middle East, the Iraqi hatred for Americans and his powerlessness to distinguish himself from the occupying military forces and contractors. He told us how he had recently been evacuated to Jordan after a rash of expatriate kidnappings, leaving behind new friends whose futures were unknown. Everything about Dula spoke to us of the horrors of seeing one's neighbors' children kidnapped, of walking with fear along a deserted street, of seeing churches exploding in the night.

By the end, our ethics class sat in stunned silence. The least we could hope for was some way to respond. Should we go to Iraq and do the same? Is it time to picket the White House? Write letters? What do we do? Dula's answer was clear and emphatic.

"Ride your bike."

He repeated this short phrase twice but the second time it sounded more like a plea than a suggestion. Then he walked from the lectern and left a befuddled crowd to ponder his words and, hopefully, to act upon them.

Six months later I am living in Portland, Oregon, exercising the spiritual discipline of bicycling. True, it's a lot easier here than in Durham, North Carolina. Buses fueled by biodiesel share the road with bipeds in one of the country's most bicycle-friendly cities. Bike lanes dot the highway and most motorists will even give you a friendly wave. Still, it's not always fun and games riding in the city. It rains almost everyday in the northwest and the winds of the Columbia River Gorge can knock over the most stalwart biker with 10-degree blasts.

So I guess, as spiritual disciplines go, this one certainly fits the bill. But, while riding is considered "morally correct" and financially wise for Oregonians, many of us who are Christians ride for different reasons. Rising gas prices posted on placards on many corners are consistent reminders of the world at war, a war fueled by oil. As a Christian I have a responsibility to respond to the imitation of Christ not only with my interior life but with the ways I use the resources of God's creation and in how I think about war. There is no simpler gesture of Christ's peace than to stop purchasing from the gas station.

We are coming upon a new Lenten season, a time when the guilt of my failed spiritual disciplines will once again be edging in on my psyche. If you feel the same way, this season, when we prepare our hearts for the great mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, you might try on a different hat. Instead of ditching sweets, maybe try riding the bus, though it might tack 30 minutes onto your daily commute. That time can be used for prayer and reflection. Feeling ambitious? Think about setting your coffee money aside every day to invest in biodiesel or straight vegetable oil conversion. You might commit to 40 days of bicycle commuting, walking to the grocery store or not driving all together.

Lent is the time when we have the opportunity to release convenience and ease for a life of dependence, community, and sacrifice. May this season in particular help us each remember our commitments to the church worldwide, the MCC workers and Christians in Iraq and, ultimately, to the kingdom come.

Melissa Bixler is part of the L'Arche Nehalem community in Portland, Oregon, where she is an assistant to developmentally disabled adults. This article first appeared in SojoMail. Reprinted with permission of the author.