Ride Your Bike
Parked in my son’s apartment in Brooklyn is a child’s bicycle belonging to my six-year-old granddaughter. Her bike still has training wheels on it. But one day soon, I know, the training wheels will come off; she will put on her crash helmet and be on her way – one of the many little rites of passage that mark one’s progress through life. It is hard for me to believe that a generation has passed since her daddy and his older brother were first making their wobbly way down the street on two-wheelers. I was the one who trotted along behind them with my hand gripping the seat until they got their sense of balance. There was the inevitable transition period when they didn’t want me to let go. But then, of course, if I didn’t let go, they would never have learned what it feels like to balance on a bike.
I was reminded of all that because of a dream – or rather, the immediate aftermath of a dream -- when I was still suspended between wakefulness and sleep. The dream was about riding a bike, but that is less important than the words that came to me as I was waking up: “Ride your bike and do what you like.” I dimly remembered an old Donovan Leitch song with words to that effect in its refrain. My unconscious was evidently trying to deliver a message -- but what exactly?
Riding a bike, as we all know, is one of those skills that comes so naturally that you never forget it once you have mastered it. My own bike is rusting away down in our basement with two deflated tires. Yet I have no doubt I could hop on a bike tomorrow, gimpy knees and all, and pedal off with not the slightest worry I might fall off, even though I have not ridden one in years. You might say that riding a bike is almost an extension of yourself, and that may be the whole point. You don’t forget how to be yourself. However, we don’t start out in life riding a bike, and we don’t know we can do it until we do. There is still that awkward transition period when we want someone trotting along behind us gripping the seat so we don’t fall off.
I mention this because most of us never master our full potential as human beings – and I am not speaking here of mere bike-riding. According to our sacred literature, we are made in God’s image and given dominion over the rest of creation. To have dominion means we have been given lordship over creation. And yet most of us live in a state of fearful dependency. We want someone always behind us gripping the seat. We think that being a child of God means we never have to grow up. Yet look at how Jesus handled his disciples. According to the gospel accounts, he performed miracles and then sent his disciples into the world to do the same. He told them, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do.”
Greater works than these? According to the gospels, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. St. Peter did the same with a widow named Dorcas, and St. Paul restored life to a young man who had fallen from a third-story window. Jesus’ disciples are usually depicted with halos around their heads, so we assume they are nothing like us. But that misses the point. The biblical accounts make clear that Jesus’ disciples were ordinary human beings in every respect except perhaps one: they were willing to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt when he told them they could do the impossible. Even if you don’t believe in miracles, it is clear no distinction was made between what Jesus did and what his disciples were expected to do. St. Paul wrote that those who love God are “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” Our tendency is to regard Jesus as one of a kind, whereas Paul seems to be suggesting he was merely the first off the assembly line.
How does one go about being conformed to the image of the Son? For that matter, how did Jesus go about doing what he did? We are prone to think he came equipped with superpowers, like some comic-book hero. But Paul says quite the opposite, that Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. There seems to be a contradiction here. We are given lordship over creation and yet should conform to the image of the Son, who took the form of a slave. Theologians have a fancy term for this: kenosis, from the Greek, meaning to be emptied of all self-will. However, we are mistaken if we think that to be emptied of self means there is nothing there. Once we are emptied of self we are still overflowing with everything that remains, which is God.