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.
I’ve noticed that the world doesn’t take this week off. I mean, if you don’t pick up and travel to some location far away, life finds you. And it finds you doing what you do the other 51 weeks of the year. I’m not sure we know how to do rest anymore.
I was so looking forward to it – a week of Sundays with no demands. None of the regularly scheduled items. No deadlines. No meetings. No classes. No obligatory anything. All was left open. But that’s not enough. Because things wander in, and before you know it you’re more full with things to be done than you were when your appointment book reigned supreme. Unless we “take our rest,” we are restless, and the world’s ways have a very quick solution to that problem.
This week, known as Holy Week to those in the Christian faith, is the holiest week of the year. We are meant to set it aside, the culmination of a season of Lent which has prepared us for just this time. The week following Palm Sunday: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What a package deal: 3 for the price of One, all on sale this week at a church near you!
That sounds just plain exhausting. Better to go on vacation to take our mind off it all. But this year, we haven’t. I’m here and I must decide what this week will be for me. For my faith. For my Lord. For my family, friends, community and world. Because that is why I am here.
What do I suffer so that someone else might be healed? It’s a simple question, with no simple answer. We all have to answer it for ourselves. The key for me is trusting that there is an answer. There is an intention behind what I’m meant to do, and it’s bigger – so much bigger – than me.
A friend just posted this on Facebook:
A week of palindromes. The dates this week will be the same read backwards and forwards. Were you to list these numbers, there would be no way of telling whether your started at the beginning or the end. The last would be first and the first would be last, and we couldn’t tell which was which. Cool, huh?
Funny that this is true of Holy week. The week where the greatest reversal of all time is celebrated. The week that death itself was defeated and life eternal took its place. Impossible to grasp, really. Yet, what I keep finding (and hearing from others when they find) is that when God’s solution in a circumstance or a question or a hardship or a decision is made plain, it makes perfect sense. “Of course. I should have seen that all along!” It’s so simple.
So, I sit with my week that isn’t quite what I had planned, and the things set before me. Kids who are hurt, injured, recovering and the parents and coaches who long for them to be well. I see the hardship that desperately needs healing, and I am in awe that He would entrust these to me. But God, this week? It was supposed to be our quiet week, our Sabbath time, our rest. We were going to get to those old projects, really wrap up the manuscript, tidy up those articles I have been meaning to submit, and clean out those closets. It’s spring after all!!
Wait. There’s no quiet there. The spring break holiday is no respecter of pain and suffering; they get no vacation, no break, no respite until healing comes. Health care workers are on the job, even on holidays, even on weekends, even on Easter. Perhaps this week, above all weeks, is meant to be dedicated to making all things well.
Jesus didn’t take a week off. Especially not this one. How simple.
Have you ever found yourself on an uphill with no more gears to shift down into? That was me last weekend. Two mile uphill. Couldn’t see the top and Jim, the tour group leader sweeping the route (yes, I was the LAST cyclist) shouts from behind me, “Don’t save your gears!”
“I’m not!” I called with what breath I had remaining, “I’m in my lowest gear!”
Thank goodness for 12 (or is it 14?) speed bikes. In the lowest gear you can pedal almost without going anywhere. Which is exactly what this felt like. Pedaling for all I was worth and going nowhere. The nerve of that guy to yell instructions.
He was trying to be helpful. And he did pedal next to me. Somehow we managed to chat and pedal, chat and pedal all the way to the top. Distraction is a wonderful thing. So is company, when the going gets tough. And you’re in your last gear.
Jim and I fist bumped at the top. He gave me the requisite encouragement: “You did great!” Then added, “You’re not even breathing hard.”
And I wasn’t. That was funny. In my younger years I would have saved my lower gears, just in case the hill got steeper. Now I wasn’t ashamed to go ahead and shift into the granny gear and pedal, pedal patiently all the way to the top. It wasn’t me against the mountain. It was just me and the white line ahead of me. There was only one way back to the Inn for dinner and it was up that hill.
Of course after the big uphill there was an outrageous downhill. Several miles of steep and then steeper, winding down and around, through shadow and shade, past…I’m not sure what. Because I was too busy pumping my breaks hoping not to fly face-first over the handlebars. Funny that the uphill doesn’t faze me but the downhill can be terrifying. Oh yes, and I knew Jim would be closing fast from behind. He had warned us that he really zoomed on those down hills. Great. Bumper bikes at 45 mph.
Thankfully, most of the Vermont terrain was neither steeply up nor downhill but rolling. And feeling neither the need to lead the pack nor embarrassment about bringing up the rear, these rolls I road with great pleasure. Taking in the sights, left and right, front and back. Stopping here and there to snap a photo or follow a goldfinch in flight. To wander into a very old cemetery or count the horse stalls by the church, leftover from the days when this was the mode of transportation on a Sunday morning.
“Your head is on a swivel,” Marilyn, our other bike tour leader told me. “You see three times as much as everyone else.” She coined me ‘observant.’ Perhaps this is something I have adopted as I’ve seasoned a bit.
I had thought I was just slow. But perhaps moving slowly can be profitable. You notice stuff. Stuff like the inchworm making his way across your husband’s shocking yellow jersey. Stuff like your neon pink clad teen, jumping and waving her arms wildly while running back down the hill (and then back up!) to celebrate your arrival. Welcoming you home to the room designated for you at the Inn. That’s a welcome sight, especially when the journey has been long.
The Norwich Inn, Hanover Vermont. Finally, a resting place.