Head Case

About twenty seconds into a twenty-mile bike ride, I thought, this is foolish.

The mid-40s temperature lowered dramatically when I started the ride because cyclists create their own wind chill factor. Brrrr! Good news: the streets were dry. Bad news: California’s San Joaquin Valley has Tule fog, and looks like a soup tureen filled with thin gruel. The good news about the bad news was the fog wasn’t terrible on the day I shidled* for about an hour.

Cold as it was, I did one smart thing.

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – for January 23, 2011

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… (I Corinthians 1:18)

Ah, but the day before, that was a foolish day. In the final moments of my wife’s winter break from teaching we cross-country skied. We wanted to put the San Joaquin’s Valley’s dismal fog in our rear view mirror. We selected the snow-covered road that led to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove for our adventure. Two miles down this road awaited the fabled sequoias. Just. Two. Miles. Alas, since California’s had a zillion inches of moisture in the last month, the snow depth on the usually pleasant road rivaled the Sahara Desert’s sand dunes. But freezing! Brrrr! I fell. Often. Several times, in the endless, powdery snow, I feared I might drown if I wasn’t careful.

Here I am, shidling.*

Cold as it was, I did one smart thing.

See that picture of me on my two-wheeler? I may look like a dork, and I may be a fool to pedal in the winter, but do you notice how good my hair looks? No. You don’t. When I bike, my helmet’s strapped on. Of the 714 bicycle-related deaths in the United States during 2008, 616 (86%) of those cyclists were helmetless. Boys and girls, don your dorky headgear!

Here’s another stirring statistic: approximately 40% of the body’s heat “escapes” from the head. Your noggin will “lose” more heat while struggling in cold conditions than arms, legs, and derriere combined. And so, even though I fell early and often on the snow-choked road to the Big Trees (which on that day I never saw), I was also a mostly toasty lad. I wore a cap. My ears were covered.

Don’t call me no fool! I guard my thinning follicles and vanishing brain cells. If I fall off my bike, I’ll probably be able to talk about it the next day. When the wind howls across the Sierra ridges, I’ll adjust my comfy hat and bravely smile.

In my physical activity, I’m good at protecting my head. And yet, in my spiritual life, my head often gets in my way.

I read Paul’s statement in I Corinthians—the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God—and smile. What a clever use of words he has. And then I cringe. If Christians are fools for Christ’s sake, I will often do everything possible to avoid looking faithfully foolish.

I prefer to think about God. Me? I’ll read the Bible. Or I’ll read scholarly insights about the Bible. Or I’ll even read commentary about commentary about the Bible. It’s all so, well, interesting to ponder what I’ve read about God. And safe.

I enjoy debating scripture. A few weeks back, the lectionary focused on Jesus’ baptism. Isn’t it bothersome that Mark has the spirit—like a dove—arriving immediately as Jesus rises from the Jordan, while Luke has the same feathered metaphor appearing later? Hey, get your stories straight! And let’s ignore how John’s Gospel depicted Jesus’ baptism, ‘cuz I’ll get agitated about how different that was! Give me a scripture and I’ll figuratively arm-wrestle you about why it’s a PR ploy by first-century evangelists wary of the Roman Empire.

Talk, I will. Argue, I will. Too often, and too easily, I protect myself with fancy words and selected facts.

When my wife and I returned to the car, and after I’d fallen in the snow those zillion times, I told her, “I’m glad I’ve had good ski experiences in the past.” If that day had been my only point of reference for cross-country skiing, I’d consider tossing my skis and poles into the fireplace for kindling.

But I knew of the good days. And could anticipate more good days.

It’s like that for my faith, for my sense of the foolishness of the cross. I can recall and celebrate the moments—the small percentages of time—where my “head” didn’t protect me, but instead my “heart” felt fully engaged. Not too long ago, while visiting a hospice patient, I heard his anguish over a family situation. I’m merely a volunteer. I’m not there as an ordained pastor, though I am. I’m not there because it’s my “Christian duty,” though I’m a follower of Jesus. He hurt. I know hurt. He felt broken. I too am broken. I sat beside him, mostly saying nothing. I sat beside him, and I think—I believe—he knew I’d stay with him until that moment’s anguish passed. He needed another to listen. I listened. He asked for a prayer. We prayed.

The foolishness of the cross is many things. Indeed, it would easy to debate its multitude of meanings. But it’s at least one thing for me in some of my fleeting best moments: a challenge to let my go of those things I protect myself with and risk being fully with another.

*shidled or shidling: shivering while pedaling, usually done by people wearing odd helmets and brightly-colored jackets.

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