This morning began for me as most mornings have in the last four and a half months. I woke before my wife and two teenage children and set out on a bicycle. I rolled through an unusually foggy morning for southern California in August for about an hour, took a picture to capture the experience, posted my route and time to Instagram and Facebook, and then began my day in the practice of ministry as a United Methodist Elder.
You may have similar disciplines of health and fitness. I see you and commend you. I want to reflect today on my journey with cycling in the time of COVID-19 for the sake of those looking to add some balance of physical discipline to their spiritual practice and those looking for ways to model patterns of life for the church in its current digital diaspora.
I want to confess that I am not an elite athlete by any measure; this is not a reflection on lessons learned from victory or even from failure. In point of fact, I am, have been historically, and will likely always be “a big guy.” I am 6’4” when I don’t slouch and for much of my adult life I have worn too much weight on my frame. At my heaviest, I was defensive lineman big, weighing around 365 pounds. There has been an ebb and flow to my patterns of diet and exercise for the whole of my twenty years of ministries—times when I have inspired others with my drive and the goals I have set and times when lay leaders have tried to find the words to say and confidence to share their worry for my health. Holding a holistic vision to the balance of mental, physical, and spiritual health, I took it seriously when both my doctor and therapist recommended that I explore weight loss surgery as a tool for and investment in my future health. So it came to pass that in October of 2019, I had a vertical sleeve gastrectomy and through patterns of diet and exercise, I have transitioned more into a wide-receiver-type big guy.
Cycling has been a part of my life since 2007, and I have had seasons of more intense training with longer rides. But the last four months have opened a window to me that has shined a deep, holy light on cycling’s value in my journey. In our city, physical worship shut down in March, right in the middle of Lent. We have not been together physically since. I found that by Easter the extra (and new) work of live streaming worship and studies was becoming a deep drain on my body and spirit. I found myself needing a release, and I chose my bike as a healthy means that matched my goals. I have averaged 6 rides a week since then, often going two to three weeks between a day off. I consistently post a picture of my route and usually a goofy, smiling selfie.
Beyond the mental and physical health benefit of the exercise, the pattern of riding and posting has net three returns for me and our congregation.
- Modeling: As a pastor, I advocate for adopting disciplines in life that promote spiritual and physical health. Each weekday, so far in the pandemic, I have done a Facebook Live check in that involves exploring the Bible, the reading of a poem, singing music, and sharing in intercessory prayer needs. I treat it as a time to pastorally model means of grace and faithful disciplines. I treat my ride reporting much the same. I model practices that promote physical health for my congregation. I use social media as a vessel of proclamation about what God is doing in and through me in this time. My hope (stated and implied) is to encourage folks to seek their own means to health in this season. Many members, especially physically distanced senior members, need to feel a nudge and prompt to move—even if it is a walk around the block. This breaks patterns of despair and succumbing to the 24-hour news cycle.
- Accountability: Given that we are all balancing work and home lives in a season of great anxiety, we each must find what fitness for ministry looks like. For me, the regularity of my cycling has become a trusted resource and not a burden. It serves as a chance to reflect on my day, my spirit, my family, my needs, my fears. It is a time of pouring out. And in sharing the paths I cover, I am also sharing in an accountability of my soul-tending with my friends, family, and members.
- Hope: One church member wrote me a letter that reads in part, “I am so glad to see you out riding. It reminds me that someday life will be normal again.” Choosing life and new patterns of fitness in this season of COVID-19 has served as a source of hope for him and for me.
If you are feeling a pull to more deeply invest in your physical health during the pandemic, what will be your first steps toward making that a reality? Consider one of these:
- Brainstorm some ways you will, publicly or privately, keep track of your practice. Sometimes the simple act of making a hash mark is a celebration in itself, and a way to mark progress. For those in leadership, convincing yourself that you are doing it to model for others might be the right motivation.
- Find a companion or several who will bike, run, or whatever with you, and push you a little if you slack off.
- Talk to your partner or a friend about how taking the time to do this changes your mental space, so they can remind you of that later.
I often read scripture as a means to live into a hoped for future in the midst of current struggle. My fitness habit is in an investment in my long-term health, and it is a daily statement of faith about my place in God’s future and God’s place in my future.