They say you never forget how to ride a bike… While I’m pretty sure ‘they’ were talking about a push bike, as a motorbike rider who currently doesn’t own a motorbike (a fact which sharply divides those who think that is a very good thing from those who look at me with a mixture of pity, disappointment and confusion!), I’m inclined to agree!
While I certainly haven’t forgotten how to ride, I found myself this week remembering again the process of learning to ride a bike in the first place. “Look where you want to go,” the instructor would tell us repeatedly, until we learned to disregard our physical urge to steer by using the handle bars, and instead simply to turn our head, shift our weight, and discover, as if by magic, that the bike would indeed steer to the right if we looked right, and to the left if we looked left. Strange! I still barely understand it now, even though I did get the hang of it after a while.
It did take a while though. I remember ever so clearly riding a notoriously steep and twisty road in the North-east of Tasmania just a few months after getting my provisional licence, and having to concentrate really hard on steering by turning my head - by looking where I wanted to go - and not by anxiously wiggling the handlebars. I also have, forever etched on my memory, the view of a large motorhome coming round one of those corners, and my eyes becoming fixed on it - on the oncoming danger, on the headlights, on the shape and size of the large, steel bumper which I feared making contact with in just a few seconds time…
With the words “look where you want to go” ringing in my ears, I managed to muster the concentration necessary to take my eyes off the oncoming vehicle and back on to the clear space on my side of the road and with a couple of centimetres to spare, managed to navigate my way round the big white motorhome and carry on riding.
The temptation when riding a motorbike, to focus on the dangers and hazards on the road is certainly understandable, and quite natural. It is also the worst thing you can do. Where you look, when riding a motorbike, is where you end up - whether that’s the clear road ahead, or the front bumper of the oncoming motorhome on the other side of the double white line.
Faith and Fear
In recent days I’ve been thinking and chatting with people about faith.. and fear. The writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament has plenty to say about faith, and lists of all the great heroes of faith who’s stories are told on the pages of the Old Testament: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon and plenty of others. (No-one knows the identity of the author of Hebrews - it’s a bit of a mystery still).
Hebrews describes faith as being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see. We’re urged to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, to run the race with perseverance and to consider the way that Jesus endured much that was hard and painful. And we’re told that if we do this, we won’t grow weary and lose heart. Sounds simple enough - but as far as I can tell, its much easier said than done.
I wish I could tell you how good I am at keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus, how strong my faith is, how sure I am that God has got it, that he knows what he’s doing, that I can be confident and certain that God keeps his promises. But in reality, anxious thoughts battle for my attention far more often than I would like. And it seems ever so easy to fix my eyes on worst case scenarios, on all the ways I could drop the ball… on the big, white motorhome coming round the corner towards me.
Surely I’m letting the side down terribly with this apparent lack of faith? Surely God can’t possibly work through someone with as little faith as this? Surely all these heroes of faith the writer of the book of Hebrews praises and commends didn’t struggle with doubt and anxiety? Surely they had it all together, and that’s why God used them and not other people?
Determined to prove to myself that God only works through superheroes to make a difference in the world, I flick back in the bible to read up on Abraham’s story. Here’s this legend of a man, called by God to pack up his family and all his belongings and hit the road. He does that straight away, and he is commended for his faith. Showing such promise as he does, God decides he’s the prime candidate to start a new nation that will show the rest of the world how life was supposed to be lived. “Abraham, you’ll have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky,” God tells him. Too right, I think - this is exactly the kind of faith superhero that God would choose. Great work God!
The next bit of the story is a bit of a surprise though. Abraham, not having read the script properly, has a momentary lapse of superhero-faith, and thinks God must have made a mistake. Afterall, he and the wife are getting on a bit, and having children now seems somewhat unlikely… Abraham takes matters into his own hands and tries to help God keep his promises by having sex with one of the household staff instead…
Still, I conclude, even superheroes have the occasional moment of weakness. Let’s move on swiftly and check out the next superhero on the list - Moses. Surely in Moses, we’ll see impeccable credentials on display, and true to form, God will choose a brave, fearless, faith hero to do great deeds on the earth.
Moses after all, he’s the tough guy who stood up to the Egyptians, took out the slave driver, then fronted up to Pharaoh, (orchestral soundtrack playing in the background,) and uttered those immortal words, “Let me people go”. Classic superhero - exactly the kind of person God would choose! Exactly the kind of person I am not.
I flick back to the Moses story and look for further proof that Moses is a cut above the rest, and on obvious choice for international, Kingdom of God diplomacy.
Weirdly, Moses is a long way away from Egypt when God turns up for a chat. Something about running off after word got out that he’d knocked off that Egyptian slave driver. Probably a typo. Anyway, God rocks up, hiding in a burning bush (nice special effects) and informs superhero Moses of the next mission - no doubt with the ‘Let me people go’ bit highlighted and underlined three times.
Moses’ response? Er, well… Not exactly what I had in mind.
“Who am I that I should go?”
“What if they ask me tough questions?”
“What shall I tell them?”
“What if they don’t believe me?”
“What if they don’t listen to me?”
Then God gives Moses a cool trick to impress Pharaoh - a magic trick where Moses’ staff turns into a snake…. That’ll scare them… But Moses is the one who get’s scared and runs off from the snake.
“Sorry Lord, I’m not actually that good with words. Never have been. I’m a bit slow when it comes to speaking in public.”
“Sorry Lord. Please send someone else.”
I don’t get it. This guy’s supposed to be a faith superstar. A hero. Bold in the face of danger. Unflinching under pressure. “Let me people go,” and all that.
“Please send someone else,” was definitely not in the script.
Disappointed, I press on with reading the Hebrews heroes-of-faith hall-of-fame.…
The people of Israel all get a mention for having enough faith to cross the Red Sea when the Egyptians were chasing after them with horses and swords and chariots. Now that is definitely wrong. I know that. They whimpered and cried like babies when that happened. They weren’t tough faith superheroes at all.
And Gideon!? He’s a scared wimp from start to finish…
All of a sudden, I’m beginning to wonder about this writer to the Hebrews. I don’t think he’s done his research properly. No wonder he doesn’t tell us his name - he’s made half of his book up. This list of faith superheroes is a bit of a hoax.
There’s no journalistic integrity here at all.
These ‘heroes of faith’ are not heroes at all. They’re no different from you and me.
They’re… no… different… from you… and me…
They’re no different from you and me.
And so, slowly, it occurs to me… These heroes of faith are still heroes. Not the superstar heroes I might want them to be - fearless, unflinching and unwavering…
These guys are heroes not because they had no fear, but they had faith despite their fear.
They are heroes not because they thought of themselves as heroes, as mighty warriors, and future rulers and kings, but because they knew they were absolutely ordinary, and trusted God’s promises anyway.
They are heroes not because they knew they had all the strength and ability they needed, but because they knew they weren’t good enough, but they trusted that God would give them the strength, the wisdom and the words they needed when they needed them.
They are heroes not because they had no doubts, worries or anxious thoughts, but because they chose to believe God’s promises in spite of their doubts and worries.
These guys are heroes of faith, because in their ongoing battles between faith and fear, faith won through in the end.
I know for myself, and I know for my friends and family who are also followers of Jesus, that this battle between faith and fear is a real one. I can be quick to conclude that I’m out of the game, that my faith is non-existent, and that because I know that I’m not good enough, that that is the final word on the subject.
Jesus warns against letting worry choke us when he talks about seeds and plants and weeds and thorns in Matthew 13. He obviously knew the dangers. He clearly recognised that there was a battle going on.
Jesus knew that we’d be quick to take our eyes off him and fix them instead on ourselves. He knew that we’d be tempted to depend on our own intelligence, ideas, strength, eloquence, friendships, skills and abilities. And he knew that when we did that we’d either become self-centred and anxious.
Don't be afraid
As I’ve realised again in recent weeks that there is an ongoing battle between faith and fear, I’ve come to see that God says the same thing to us today, as he said to these unlikely heroes of faith from the past.
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I am with you.”
“I will give you words to say.”
“I will help you.”
“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
We’re a small community of Jesus followers at Barney’s. We easily look at ourselves and worry that we are too old, or too young, too poor, or too busy. We can certainly find lots of reasons that God should choose other people to be his representatives instead of us.
We can easily take our eyes of Jesus, and instead look with fear at the hard situations and circumstances in the lives of our neighbours and colleagues and friends and family members, and become anxious and fearful.
Or we can look where we want to go. We can fix our eyes on the road ahead not on the oncoming traffic. We can follow the writer of Hebrews, who straight after considering the heroes of faith, writes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
We have a very real choice about where we look, about where we fix our eyes. In the battle between faith and fear - faith wins out in the end… If we let it!