Honestly, I’m not used to lagging behind when things get physically demanding. I’ve always been more of a front-of-the-pack, encourage-people-up-the-hill kind of a person. But this week was different; this week of bike touring in Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley, I was the last. Always. Everyday, I was last to lunch.
When my cycling group whizzed by me, I’d shout, “I’m slow but I’m coming,” trying to sound upbeat (and hide my frustration). “Have a great ride!” I would add, as the last of them passed me by. One bemused farmer called out, “Yur falling behind. Better catch up.”
I would have if I could have. But in the rolling hills and quite steep regions of Oregon, I was no match for any of my companions. Neither the “older” cyclists zooming by on e-bikes (motorized bicycles you dial in your level of assist) nor the younger set who barreled through unconcerned about preserving their knees or conserving their energy, were waiting around for me.
The younger set who were traveling together all hailed from Chicago. We called them the Chicago-7, although there were actually 8 of them. Four couples, each with elementary and middle-school-aged children attending the same private school and, at present, all enjoying time away at camp. Good for the Chicago-8, I thought, taking time away as couples and time away from demanding jobs and schedules. This was a high-achieving bunch. Even on vacation, their morning ride was a full-on sprint to lunch at the daily winery, followed generally by a van shuttle back to the hotel for a dip in the hot tub before dinner.
All of my tour-mates were extremely friendly, even when they had to wait for me in order to load the shuttle we all planned to take up the big hill. One brushed aside my apology for slowness saying, “Oh Wendy, you’re in great shape, for your age.”
Oh those words… “for your age.”
But I knew that already, didn’t I? I knew it for SURE when my quads refused to keep pedaling and my gasps of breath barely drowned out the pounding of my heart. Several times over the 6 days of cycling I (gasp!) got off and walked my bike up the hill. This would include on the last day, after riding into a stiff head wind all morning, when I struggled up the pebbled path toward lunch at the Keller winery. I was last by far.
Cresting the hill, I scanned the scene: checkered tablecloths adorned picnic tables which welcomed us into the shade of towering beech trees. Rows of sunflowers bent shyly before the expanse of rolling hills covered with Willamette Valley vines.
My biking companions took no notice of my arrival; they were fully engaged, enjoying each other’s company, smiling and laughing, wine freely pouring, the tables now littered with empty plates, the only remnant of the luxurious buffet lunch they had enjoyed. By the time I got a plate (I had to ask for one because they had run out), my choice was a picked-over cheese plate, some greens and whether or not to challenge the half-dozen bees greedily enjoying the only salad left — chicken salad or tuna — I couldn’t tell.
I took my mostly empty plate to a seat at the last table and guzzled from my water bottle, warm from the morning’s ride. As no one approached me with an offer of wine for tasting, I ventured to the “happy” table to examine the bottle of white everyone seemed to prefer. There was hardly a swish in the bottom, which I declined. The guy looking on drained it into his already full glass. Waste not, want not, I guess.
After the obligatory group photo, they called “First shuttle leaving!” As I boarded, I heard one of the tour leaders ask in a sheepish voice if they could possibly have 2 more bottles of white for the Chicago Table, who would be taking the second shuttle back.
Before you shout SOUR GRAPES, let me say that I don’t begrudge these young professionals their success, good fortune and fun. They work hard, get their kids to all their activities, and still manage to dress in style — showered and put-together — their affect proclaiming their readiness to take on the world. Bike trip or home: same status.
Oh, and my goodness how they danced with technology! Multiple notifications managed, emails caught up, scanned through daily camp photos, even ordered text books for the upcoming school year — all while shuttling to the the morning’s ride. “Look how productive I’m being,” one adorable woman cried with glee. And you couldn’t disagree. She had the most infective laugh I’ve ever heard, and she was a surgeon, to boot.
Clearly I have fallen waaaay behind this group. It’s no wonder I’m last to lunch. But the view from behind turned out to be quite eye-opening, for me who normally leads the way. No, I do not begrudge these “youngsters” their due; rather, I see myself in them. I see the me who was proud of my accomplishments, felt deserving of my rewards, and eager to celebrate my self-sufficiency and productivity.
Graciously, on this occasion, God allowed me to see myself through different eyes.
The me who is often oblivious to the last and the least The me who, amidst the plenty, helps herself to more than her fill The me who allows my joviality to dull my sense of proportion The me who becomes too easily absorbed in my own revelry
Suddenly these words from the Gospel of Matthew take on new meaning: “So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
I have often interpreted this verse as the promise of a God-assist, proclaiming that in the end of times God will lift the poor suffering ones to the front of the line. This, I presume, helps me feel better about their plight and my distance from it. But in this, my week of perpetual Lastness,* I was introduced in the smallest sense to the nature of Last.
The Last don't want to be "encouraged" with hollow qualifying words. ... ie. You're good in spite of your obvious incapacitation. The Last don't want to cut to the front of the line. The Last aren't looking for a hand out or a hand up. The Last just want us to leave them room. ... a fair share, ... a proper portion, ... a helping of what we ourselves have helped ourselves to.
Because NO ONE deserves to be first. Hard work may earn you a blue ribbon, a gold medal or first prize but it may not. Some are too young to keep up; some are too old. Some have been supplied with extra resources, while others have to pay their own way or pave their own path. For some, every step is a struggle. Others have circumstances holding them back. Some started further back so they have further to go. Some are just unlucky.
But NO ONE one deserves to be first. This may be the primary lesson and not-so-hidden meaning of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” When those who arrive first leave room for those coming behind …
... when we notice, ... when in our plenty we pause, ... when we quiet our reveling to listen, ... when we emerge from our self-absorption to see ... and we say, "Please, you first." Then, the last will be first and the first will be last. And we will all enjoy lunch together at the Kingdom Table.
*My brief experience of Lastness, of course, does not even approach the plight of the last and least that is the day by day of so many in our world. Please forgive my pretense of this here. I was offered a simple and indicting God-glimmer and it was surely a means of grace.
Exertion focuses you. But not on the exertion.
When we were much younger, my husband and I went on a bike touring trip to Vermont. It was the intermediate and advanced excursion. Five delightful days pedaling through rolling hills past pastoral scenes of fields and barns and livestock. Vermont ain’t flat, as the t-shirt says.
Some of the ‘rolls” are a bit more upright, shall we say. But, being young and fit, we tackled them bravely, downshifting through our gears until we got could barely move the pedals. So steep were the hills that our bikes inched up the incline. But our spirits were undiminished as we focused solely on the few feet of pavement that lay between us and our goal, the summit.
Finally, we reached level ground at the top, refreshing the volume in our heaving lungs. And drew in great gasps of… cow manure and hay. Gamely, we spun our pedals on the flat and continued on. Scot looked at me and said, “Bet you’re not thinking about work right now.”
Nope. The exertion of that hill had banished all thoughts from my mind but one: making it to the top.
Extreme exertion focuses you. Almost as if your body wants to distract you from the effort at hand, it pinpoints your gaze on your objective. No wandering to the to-do list. No scanning the horizon for obstacles or opportunities. No wondering about what’s to come next. Just…one…thing.
What if I exerted myself this way in prayer? Full effort, all out, take no prisoners prayer. As if the mountain was the mountain of God and my single objective was the summit. Pedaling for all I was worth. Not stopping but pushing, pushing. Sweat dripping. My heart beating against my chest. My thighs screaming. The soles of my feet forcing the pedals forward and my wheels to roll – ever, ever so slowly but to roll. Mind and body with one objective, to keep moving upward.
What a sweet, sweet intake of breath awaits me.