For the past eighteen days, I have been riding a pushbike across Australia. Even counting rest days, I have averaged well over 100 km per day. I’m on long service leave, which is in itself the mark of a fair degree of affluence, let alone being able to afford to travel as I have been doing. My reflections must be read in that light.
I’m also a religious professional, and passionately engaged with thinking about the meaning of life from a Christian perspective, although not in the traditional way some folk may expect. I spent the last three years writing theology several days a week. I’ve been keeping a blog of my travels for my wife and family, and simply because I like to write.
In this last nineteen days the blog is essentially devoid of what we might call “religious reflection.” I have simply been too busy surviving, and too tired. If you ride 200km on a day which is hot enough to mean you drink over ten litres of water, and then has three hours of rain at the end of it!!! reflections on God, or the meaning of life, or the ethics of recreation are not only too tiring. They are irrelevant. It’s more important to find a safe place to camp, reasonably free of ants, spiders, water and strange people.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about God, or the meaning of life, or what I’m about as a human being. But God has been in the wide horizons, in that utter deepness of the arid Australian landscape that can never be captured in a photo. And in the pressing silence of the forest. I’ve wondered about us, and me, as I’ve looked at thousand acre paddocks, leveled to within a centimetre for corporate cotton, and ridden for miles alongside flattened forest where the agricultural strategy has failed, leaving regrowth and trash. I’ve grieved where every hill is the habitat of feral goats and the roadside has grown as many plastic bottles; and been silenced as the bite of March flies, and the millions of mosquitoes, question meaning and Love as eloquently as all our arguments about theodicy.
And I’ve not written about it because I have been too busy and too tired surviving. I’ve also not written because our traditional language, all our theological elegance, and the language of library and pew, is incoherent in the vastness and the brutality of the country, and life on the road.
Is it any wonder that tired mothers are not interested in sitting in church trying to manage fractious kids? What does Sunday worship say to shearers trying to make Wilcannia and the station beyond, before the beer freezer goes warm, and the meat goes off? What does a polite bible study in a carpeted lounge room say to a farmer who has been doing it tough for a decade, and now can’t get on his land because it’s too wet, and most of the crop got washed away anyway?
I stopped at St James’ Hampstead, an elegant, optimistic church building built after the War. Its little garden and simple coloured glass formed an oasis in the wide paddocks, a well of silence just off the highway where the semi’s roared on. I could have stayed there for hours. Which would have meant I got nowhere. It was an elegant, neatly locked up symbol, of an old way of being faithful to God and life that no longer works, literally miles away from where all the people are. Rather the cathedral church at Wilcannia, sitting in its own yard to be sure, but not barred and shuttered up like all the other buildings within sight.
Good News for me was meeting Ralph the cyclist in the forest, who told me that the March flies ended at the edge of the forest. Good News was Phil the bike mechanic at Dubbo, who was upfront and efficient in dealing with my possible bearing problems, and did the best derailleur tune I’ve ever had on the front shifter, without been asked. And his offsider who stocks armour plated pushbike tires. Or Ros, who when I asked about road conditions, offered her farmhouse as a stopover for a day or two- “And help yourself to the food.” Or the shop lady, who when I hung my plastic bags over the handle bars, went back inside and dug out some heavy duty bags that would not break. Not a word about God from any of them.
If they can be Good News, why do we find it so hard, and have to be so objectionable about it, trying to get people saved at the same time?
I think there’s a few people like me when I’m at home. We like thinking about the bible, and the shape of worship, and elegant liturgy, and church buildings. But many more of us are like me on the road; rather preoccupied with staying alive and getting to where we’re going. Sometimes we’re on the wrong road, and focused on things unworthy of a satisfying life, but mostly we’re just trying to make it all work. What some collared up clergy says on Sunday morning, when we finally have a chance to sleep in, or at least sip decent coffee once we’ve made it to kid’s sport, all seems pretty irrelevant.
I have to do my theology. I must have some clue of what Jesus would do here and now in our shoes. But if I can’t express that in terms of wheat prices, driving lessons, school bullies and pensions, I’ve missed the point. Jesus didn’t theologise about flat tires, he offered to help fix them. Jesus didn’t just admire people who ride long distances, tenting on the way; he offered them a coffee from his caravan on wet mornings. Jesus didn’t just say cyclists deserve room on the road; he slowed down his road train to a crawl until it was safe to overtake.
If I take anything back to church with me after this ride, it’s a deep wondering if we are not somehow doing church quite the wrong way!
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