Faith and the Art of Motorcycle Riding

Scripture: Matthew 6:25-33

It was a lovely late summer day many years ago, and I was chugging along down a dirt road on the back of my newly acquired Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle. The big bike weighed around 800 pounds and was a handful of steel, petrol, and power. I had not yet tamed the beast. 

Things went south quickly when my front wheel slammed into a pothole that, in the dappled afternoon light, I had mistaken for a shadow. All 200 pounds of me flew off the bike like a rag doll, landing beside the front wheel. I looked up and saw that the Harley had continued to bounce along until it stood, wobbling, right next to me. Understanding what was about to happen next, I frantically squirmed out of the way just in time to keep the bike from falling onto my head.

I learned a few things in that instant. I learned that flight is a powerful human instinct. I learned that this is especially true when, absent an effective evasive maneuver, you will have to explain to your friends how you ran over yourself with your own motorcycle. And I learned that you can say a profound and heartfelt prayer in half a second while twisting in the dirt. 

As some of you know, I remain a dedicated motorcyclist, my misadventure with the Road King notwithstanding. I’ve never met a motorcycle showroom I didn’t like, and, as Lisa can confirm, I’ve met only a few I could resist. At some points in my life, I’ve had as many as five of these dangerous instrumentalities jammed into my garage.

Motorcycle rides have been a source of endless delight to me. One of my favorite downstate excursions is a trip to The Dam Site Inn, a bar and burger joint located in the tiny town of Hell, Michigan. I like that I can say that I have literally ridden my motorcycles to Hell and back.  

In my view, the best book about motorcycles was written by Melissa Holbrook Pierson and is called The Perfect Vehicle. She begins Chapter One of her small masterpiece with this observation:

“From my mother I learned to write prompt thank-you notes for a variety of occasions; from Mrs. King’s ballroom dancing school I learned a proper curtsy and, believe it or not, what to do if presented with nine eating utensils at the same place setting, presumably at the home of the hosts to whom I had just curtsied. From motorcycles I learned practically everything else.”

I can’t honestly say that everything I know about faith I learned from the hours I’ve spent aboard my two-wheeled companions.  But I have found them to be wonderful instructors in matters of a spiritual nature. This morning, I want to share with you some of the theological insights that my motorcycles have gifted me. 

Now, before you non-bikers allow your minds to wander elsewhere, permit me to offer a bit of reassurance. I assume that the vast majority of you have never ridden a motorcycle. And I make that assumption based on my sense that most of you are rational people—my spiritual brother Ron Calsbeek a notable exception. But my message this morning isn’t limited to those among you who own visored helmets and full sets of leathers.

Robert Pirsig said that his best-selling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancedidn’t actually have much to do with either Zen or motorcycles. In the same way, this sermon isn’t really about motorcycle riding; it’s about something else. And I think it’s about a something else to which everyone will feel they can relate. Let’s find out.

One of the spiritual lessons that has come to me through riding relates to the practice of counter-steering. In essence, counter-steering teaches us that our instincts about how to turn a motorcycle are wrong. Riders who don’t understand counter-steering can quickly get themselves into a lot of trouble.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re merrily cruising down a road that suddenly bears hard left. Common sense would tell you to push the handlebar forward on the right side, aiming the bike toward where you want to go. After all, that’s what we do with cars: if we want to go left, then we turn the steering wheel in that direction. 

But that’s not what you do with a motorcycle. Maintaining control of a bike through a turn requires you to counter-steer. To counter-steer through a left turn, you push the left side of the handlebar slightly away from you so the front wheel points a little to the right. While you’re doing that, you lean to the left. This makes the bike bear left—and through the curve you go. One of the hardest things about learning to ride a motorcycle lies in making yourself trust that this counter-intuitive way of going about things will work, and it does, because, well, physics.

I don’t pretend to know much about God, but I can safely say that the God we worship loves—and I mean absolutely loves—a paradox. Think about it. A savior born in a stable. A messiah who rides into town on a donkey. The first will be last and the last will be first. It’s the lower-caste Samaritan who saves the injured stranger and pays his bills. The father throws a big party—for the problem child. The holiest of holies hangs out with fishermen and tax collectors and sex workers. Love gets crucified. A symbol of torture becomes a symbol of grace and hope. Those who would save their lives must give them away. Death dies to life. Behold, I will tell you a great mystery, He says, and He means it. 

Jesus declares that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and this is yet another paradox because some days his marching orders feel pretty challenging and seem to run against all our instincts. Embrace our enemies. Forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Stay out of the judging business. Love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our might. Love our neighbor, too, oh, and by the way, remember that our neighbor is everybody. And sometimes most difficult of all: Love ourselves, and forgive ourselves. One of the hardest things about learning to have faith lies in making yourself trust that this counter-intuitive way of going about things will work, and it does, because, well, God. 

A second lesson that has come to me through motorcycling lies in a simple gesture: the hand wave that bikers give to each other on the road. A conventional one consists simply in pointing two fingers downward. It’s a way of saying: “Here’s hoping you manage to keep both tires on the ground.” You might think of it as a prayer of sorts.

But it’s something else, too. We motorcyclists recognize how vulnerable we are. We don’t have airbags and layers of steel to protect us from distracted drivers, startled deer, stuff lying in the road, or objects tumbling off trucks. In a car, an unexpected thunderstorm is a minor inconvenience that requires you to turn on your windshield wipers; on a bike, that same thunderstorm is a serious problem that sends you urgently looking for an overpass to hide under.

I recall early in my riding years getting caught in the rain while zipping down the highway on a bike with no windshield or fairings—those plastic shells that look decorative but that provide useful protection on the road. When I got home, Lisa asked me how bad it had been. I said: “Not bad at all, if you don’t mind having your entire body power-washed.”

This special vulnerability vests that simple wave with an additional meaning. It becomes a way of saying: “I see you, this is risky stuff we’re doing here, but I’ve got your back.” Some grumpy Harley riders only give the wave to other Harleys or other American-made bikes, but I think that misses the point. The special vulnerability we share has nothing to do with brand loyalty or place of manufacture. 

So, like most bikers, I wave at anybody who is on anything with two wheels and a motor. That just makes sense to me. We’re kindred spirits and we’re in it together.

But the larger truth is that all of us—bikers or not—share a special vulnerability, too. It goes along with our humanity, with being a fragile construct of blood and bone and skin and muscle, with having a hungry soul and a desperate heart, with being subject to an unknown expiration date. Maybe we’ve especially felt this vulnerability in the past few weeks, with the war in the Middle East and the tragic shootings in Maine. 

That vulnerability defines us. It also unites us. Every last one of us finds ourselves caught in the storm; every last one of us wishes for more protective layers at one time or another; every last one of us is on a perilous journey, checking a GPS with an uneven signal, dodging all of the stuff that comes flying at us out of nowhere. 

The wave reminds me to bear this vulnerability in mind as I move through each and every part of my life. It reminds me to see all of my fellow travelers in their humanity, to help them feel seen, and to do what I can to have their back. “Be kind,” the Scottish minister Ian MacLaren wrote, “[for] everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” True that. And most of us are doing it without big enough saddlebags and while trying to watch out for potholes.        

The third, and perhaps most important, lesson my riding has brought to me is this: Pay attention. Now, some clarification is in order, because when we talk about paying attention we could be saying two very different kinds of things. And I think it’s important to distinguish between them. 

Sometimes paying attention relates to remaining safe; in this sense, paying attention means maintaining an attitude of anxious wariness. Motorcyclists understand the importance of this practice. Indeed, a person who isn’t almost paranoically watchful when they ride a motorcycle probably shouldn’t ever throw a leg over one. 

Our faith offers analogous guidance. We find it especially in the letters of Paul. So, for example, in I Corinthians 16 he writes: “Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.”

In this context, however, I’m using “pay attention” in a different sense. I’m using it to describe the practice of being enthusiastically observant and trying not to miss anything. If you need help envisioning what I mean, then think of the look on a child’s face when they arrive at an amusement park.

In an odd way, this form of paying attention is the exact opposite of a wary guardedness. It is, instead, an extravagant openness. It sees all things, engages with all things, welcomes all things. Paying attention in this way means living fully in the moment and finding the meaning in it.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes: 

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

When we do our faith right, I think we similarly find ourselves in a place where “the sense of presence is overwhelming.” In that state, we capture all of life’s quieter blessings, subtler graces, and more intimate redemptions. At the conclusion of a sermon a while back, Robin read from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” On that occasion, listening to the poem in Robin’s voice, I was struck again by these lines: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.”

In my view, a direct (if unexpected) connection exists between this idea and the scripture reading for today—Jesus’s famous invitation for us to look at the birds in the air and the lilies of the field, advice with which I’m quite sure Mary Oliver would have concurred. To see the connection, though, we need to focus less on what Jesus is saying and more on what Jesus is doing. Because what Jesus is doing is paying attention—paying attention to everything around him, even the animals and the flowers, and finding sermons in them. 

Jesus does that a lot—a really, seriously lot. He finds sermons in mustard seeds. In salt. In candles. In our eyes and our hands. In motes and beams. In doors and gates and windows. In trees and fruits. In sun and rain. In houses built on sand. In laborers who show up late. In birds who drop seeds. Jesus pays attention, and everything around him says: Listen up; hear what God has to tell you. 

It reminds me of these lines from Walt Whitman: 

“Why should I wish to see God better than this day? 

“I see something of God in each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, in the faces of men and women, and in my own face in the glass; 

“I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name, 

“And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come, forever and ever.” 

On a motorcycle, paying attention keeps you alive. But, at least as importantly, it makes you come alive. And so it goes with any activity that awakens us from our normal existential slumber. A student once asked the great theologian Howard Thurman for advice about what to do with their future, and he replied: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In today’s passage from the gospels, Jesus models for us what it means to come alive in this way. It means seeing the lessons that are conveyed by the larks and the lilies. It means noticing the letters that God drops in the street. It means paying attention. As Howard Thurman advises: Go do that.

So, what makes you come alive? What wakes you up? What makes you see the world afresh, with all of its sonnets and symbolism and sermons-in-the-making? Different people get there in myriad different ways: through nature hikes, knitting, exercise, tinkering in their garage, lunch with friends, playing with pets, traveling, meditating, paddleboarding, sailing, bicycling, gardening, praying, reading, listening to music, painting, cooking, or just sitting—around a campfire or beside a lake or on a front porch. The French philosopher Frederic Gros wrote an entire (and wonderful) book about all the great thinkers who have found life’s deepest meanings in the simple act of walking. The possibilities are infinite, because the varieties of human personality and experience are infinite. 

One of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil … 

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

   And [so] all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell …

“And [yet] for all [of] this, nature is never spent;

   There lives the dearest freshness deep down [in] things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

I think that’s an amazing and deeply sacred idea: that no matter who we are and what we are doing in our lives, the bright wings of the Spirit wrap around us, embrace us, and hold before us “the dearest freshness that is deep down in things”—that we might awaken to their wonders; that we might be overwhelmingly present; that we might comprehend the sermons given to us through the birds and the lilies; that we might come alive. 

And so, brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome to this day, this hour, this moment. The most powerful force in the universe warmly requests the pleasure of your attendance. Wake up. Look around you. Watch. Listen. See the sparks fly out, like shining from shook foil. And hear that still small voice say to the heart inside your heart:

“I see you, this is risky stuff we’re doing here, but I’ve got your back.”

Praise God that it is so.

And the people said: Amen.

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