The Bicycle Ride

Confronting the Challenge of Change in the Postmodern World


I've pondered much on Jesus statement to His disciples to "take nothing for the journey." This morning, as I pull my bike out of the shed under the carport I'm pondering it again.

As I ascend to the roadway I'm thinking about change. In order to move to a new place we have to leave old places behind. Those "old places" can be physical or spiritual geographies. They can be both internal and external landscapes, because change grips us at all dimensions of our being. Psychologists like to talk about the "instrumental" as well as the "psychological" elements in change.

So to me, "take nothing for the journey" represents a call to empty myself of my own agenda, status, and privilege. It is a call to rely solely on the Lord for my sense of identity and "place." It is a call to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of truth, for the sake of the journey. It is a proper posture for a disciple and a learner.

Poised at the millennium, we confront two critical challenges: how to address deep problems for which hierarchical leadership alone is insufficient and how to harness the intelligence and spirit of people at all levels of an organization to continually build and share knowledge. Our responses may lead us, ironically, to a future based on more ancient -- and more natural -- ways of organizing: communities of diverse and effective leaders who empower their organizations to learn with head, heart, and hand. Peter Senge, Author of The Fifth Discipline.

Since our house is built into a hill there are two living levels, each opening out to gently sloping turf. Access to the roadway is on the higher level, so I push my bike up the stairs.. BUMP... BUMP...BUMP.

I reach the top of the stairs where the car is parked, and check over the brakes and shifter mechanism. Then I strap on my helmet and push the bike up the driveway to the road. The change I face now is a simple one, moving downhill from the precarious perch of our home on the hillside.

The first part of the descent is fairly mild. It's a beautiful day and the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It must be around 30 C.

From the top of the hill I can see most of Kelowna and the hills across the valley. Looking to the south I can see a portion of Lake Okanagan, just catching some rays now. The air is clear.. not much dust or haze at this time in the mid morning.

My bike quickly picks up speed as the elevation drops. I can barely keep up with the pedals, and then I just let the bike coast. What was method becomes surrender. Change is sometimes like that. It begins slowly and then the pace increases. We can feel fear and respond with excessive control. or learn to enjoy the ride.

One temptation is to slam on the brakes. My daughter did that on this hill not long ago and did a nice flip end-over-end. Luckily she hadn't gained much speed yet and landed in such a way that minimized the damage. Change does involve risk, and the greater the pace the more likely we are to react with anxiety.

Once committed to the journey there is no turning back. There is some traffic today, and I pass a number of vehicles heading up the hill. It's a fool's journey, going down when everyone else is going up. But it's effortless, natural, the result of unseen forces pulling on physical bodies. Some of those unseen forces are named, like Gravity, and God. Others include the forces that hold whirling particles in orbit around a nucleus. Still others are cultural forces, hard to define but the results are evident all around us.

One such force is inertia. We have to honor the unwritten codes of physical change.

Institutional inertia is a powerful force. Trying to shift a large organization into a different path is like trying to turn a battleship. It takes many long miles to accomplish the task, and if the ship is moving at 40 knots, it may not shift at all. Better to find a smaller boat.

Or it's like the Greek legend of the hero forever rolling the ball to the top of the hill, only to have to get out of the way as it eternally rolls back down again.

But there are other kinds of inertia.. there is cultural inertia, and individual and group inertia. I've been amazed at how resistant we as humans can be to change. Usually it requires a personal crisis to shift our thinking, and it requires a certain amount of imagination. Generally individual change is framed in new communities, because we are social beings who don't want to be alone as we move in new directions.

All change involves grief and loss. It involves passing through transitional places, empty places, wide desert landscapes where nothing is familiar. But the landscape of the imagination often comes alive in empty places. The old maps don't work, and we are forced to rely on intuition. Empty of our answers, we learn new questions and find our interior landscape changing.

Scientists who theorize about the smallest particles tell us that they know some things about atoms, but they can't figure out where the power comes from. Others theorize that the power is in the blank spaces.

Perhaps this is why things like community resist definition, and even more, resist construction. We can't program and construct community, though we can and do build groups. It takes more than good leadership to build community, though good leaders can draw a large audience.

In a large audience, leaders are the central figure. In community, the power is in the blank spaces. The element of mystery is tangible.

There is an age when one teaches what one knows.
But there follows another when one teaches what one does not know;
the age of unlearning.
Roland Barthes

The wind is whistling around me as I pick up speed on the final stretch. I let the slope determine the pace and I straighten up slightly to act as a wind brake. I pass a young boy who is walking down the hill.

We each have our own preferred method of travel.. two legs or two wheels, the goal is the same. Or maybe I should say "process.." I am in process of riding the change down the hill, I'm not that sure of the goal. The goal is joy, truth, love, community.. things that are at the center of the gospel, things not easily defined and that are mostly gift. Unlike previous generations, this isn't the hero's journey - it's a journey in company, just as Jesus sent them out two by two.

(When Max Planck made his first statement about "quantized oscillators" in 1900 he opened a door thought shut forever, a doorway that opened back to mystery and community. Now it is possible to talk again about relationship and connection and participation.)

Moving on two legs allows a much greater sense of control. I chafe at the speed of change among some groups, wondering how they can be coaxed to take the risk. But others are moving too fast for me, risking loss of life and limb as they race ahead of the culture without thought of direction. We all have to find a pace that is comfortable, yet the world waits for no one. Maybe that is the real function of community.. a buffer, a group that can negotiate change at a certain pace so that we don't endure it alone. The communities I choose are riding bicycles. Some communities are in Porsches; others are walking along enjoying the view. Still others look down the hill and decide it's too steep to attempt. I feel for those who fear to start the journey.

I'm at the bottom now, and the work begins. Two legs, two wheels, two pedals… up this side, down that side, up here, down there. The cycler's rhythm of push and push and push. If you want to stay centered, keep moving.

For too long we've lived with a split in our collective psyche. We separate sacred and secular, reason and revelation, flesh and spirit. Yet there are some who held these together. Jesus hung between heaven and earth, was both God and man, united word and Spirit. Our challenge is to live the mystery. We have to progress from dualism to holism.

To stay centered, which pedal do you push? You push the one that's up.

For a long time the leadership pedal has been on top, brought there by cultural forces that we welcomed into the church. We saw leadership as the key to all good things, and all good things were defined by modern culture. The direction of flow was from the top down, creating hierarchy and limiting initiative and motivation. Worse, we created a huge bottleneck that limited life. Now the community pedal is rising to the top. We are relearning the context of leadership and the power of imagination and life is bursting out all over.

"The usefulness of a metaphor for rereading our own context is that it is not claimed to be a one-on-one match to "reality" … Rather a metaphor proceeds by having only an odd, playful, and ill-fitting match to its reality, the purpose of which is to illuminate and evoke dimensions of reality which will otherwise go unnoticed and therefore unexperienced." Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home

I cycle to Starbucks to chat with a friend about models and metaphors, vision and truth, church, kingdom and culture. Models provide us with a framework for understanding, and then help us to incarnate our values. The problem with models is that they are static. The framework interacts with our understanding in predictable ways, in turn influencing the model. The intransigent character of the model inevitably manifest itself.. it becomes an institution. We stop thinking creatively; we get stuck inside the box. We insist that others join us there; one size fits all. We feel we have arrived at Universal Truth about leadership. We don't see the sand toys around us. We talk about God as unchanging, but we forget who we are; contingent, changeable beings in a fluid culture.

Metaphors, on the other hand, picture truth in story form, partaking of incarnation. Metaphors maintain flexibility; they adapt to new circumstances. Metaphors are the text that reads us.

Metaphors can carry us to places that we can only travel to in our imagination. They move beyond intellectual barriers, beyond walls of prejudice and fear. So far, this bicycle ride has been a good metaphor, carrying you along with me on this journey of discovery.

But after that, who knows what is possible? What begins in the Holy imagination can be born of the Spirit. The dream can become reality, the Word can become flesh. As Brueggemann wrote, "concrete change - attitude, action, behaviour, policy--of any serious, lasting kind arises only through an alternatively imagined world..."

We now know that human transformation does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude, but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home

What was in Abraham's head when he left the comfort of familiar places and set out for a land he had not seen? Leaving friends and family behind, he trusted in a world of promise. He trusted in One who did not change, though everything he saw around him was constantly in flux.

In order to travel to the imagined world one has to let go of certainty. One launches out on the path of discovery, "not knowing where he is going." There are more questions than answers. The pace increases; the bike hurtles down the hill.

Sometimes we choose the journey; sometimes the journey chooses us. It chose Frodo, though he also lacked a map.

"People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore." Andre Gide

What worked yesterday doesn't work today. Life's crises shakes our very foundations. "Why is there pain in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do believers stop attending Sunday services? Why are there so few conversions in our town? When we find new believers, why do they look so unlike our idea of the good Christian?" When we can no longer count on the old certainties we launch into uncharted waters, like the broken man who waited by the pool of Saloam.

I arrive at Starbucks and park my bike against a garbage can anchored on the sidewalk. There are a few tables outside, with the odd patron engrossed in conversation.

I enter the store and am greeted with the inviting scent of coffee and chocolate. The poster on the far wall reads SAN FRANCISCO. I ponder for a moment the legacy of St. Francis and how he might relate to the coffee industry.

"For our light affliction is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but the things which are unseen…" 2 Cor.4:18

Our culture has shunned weakness and glorified strength. The leaders have been the ones with the answers. In the postmodern world it is the ones willing to journey to new lands who will become the guides to new lands. We find community around weakness, but rarely find it around strength.

McChurch may have served a billion people, but it abandoned its true vocation. Francis chose the way of weakness, the way of the Holy Fool. He chose descent when others were riding up the hill, building power and prestige on the backs of the poor. The real crisis today is a crisis of spirituality and of faith. To the extent the modern church adopted worldly goals and sought prestige and power, she abandoned Christ.

She also abandoned the hope of transformation, choosing security instead of growth. New learnings only come when we leave the place of certainty behind. Only the meek will inherit the earth, and the truth is hidden from the wise.

The modern church is dying; a new church is waiting to be born.

Len Hjalmarson, August, 2002. Revised January, 2004.


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Last Updated on August, 2005