In April 2015 I decided to ride my bicycle across the United States. I knew that attempting such a thing would require a tremendous amount of training, as well as a significant reallocation of my time. I was 54 years old when I decided to fulfill this long-held ambition, but at 227 pounds I was far from a picture of athletic health; I would have to do some serious training.
My first hurdle was getting my wife, Dee, to agree to the idea. I knew it would be difficult. First was the cost, which I figured to be about $6,000. Then was the fact she would become a “ride widow” for the next year as I trained whenever possible. Also, we’d have to forgo vacations for me to save up vacation time, simultaneously putting aside money needed for the trip. On top of that, in my absence she’d be alone in managing the house, our animals, and attending to the care and complex schedule of our son Nathan, who has Down syndrome. Finally, she’d have to do all this while continuing her work as a night-shift nurse.
I did my best to craft a compelling pitch, emphasizing the health benefits that would come from making what I had begun to call The Ride. I sat down with Dee and began to explain what I wanted to do. By the fourth or fifth sentence of my pitch I knew it wasn’t going well. She listened silently, then made a cool (not to say cold) exploration of the details and many implications of The Ride. Finally, she said she’d think about it, but it didn’t look good. For that reason, I was all the more surprised when, a few days later, she agreed: I could go on the The Ride.
Not until after The Ride did I find out that she gave me permission only because she was pretty sure I’d never do it. Giving me permission meant she wouldn’t be in the position of denying me my dream.
After getting Dee’s permission, I told my son Beniah, a sophomore at Andrews University, about my plans. I expected him to cheer me on. Instead he surprised me by saying he wanted to come along. He said it had to be in May since he had plans for the rest of the summer. I was elated. Not only had The Ride become a father-and-son event, but the date had also been set in stone. I could build my training schedule around it.
I launched into a flurry of research and planning. What route? What bike? What clothing? What equipment? We’d be going “unsupported,” which is to say there would be no chase vehicle or camper following us. I could save up a month of vacation time, which meant the ride would have to be a fast one. We couldn’t camp (the weight of all the extra equipment would really slow us down), so we’d have to stay in hotels at night. What about the Midwest, where hotels can be spaced quite far apart? Then there was food. We’d burn somewhere in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day. How would we eat? More to the point, how would we eat on a budget?
As I became immersed in details I couldn’t help comparing the thought and energy I was putting into The Ride with the thought and energy I put into my personal ministry. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that it was not a flattering comparison.
I firmly believe that the Adventist Church has been entrusted with a critical message. I believe each member has a responsibility to spread this message. So why wasn’t I approaching my personal ministry with the energy and thought I was putting into The Ride? It’s an important question, a question that goes well beyond me. In fact, it’s a question that can be put to almost every Adventist: Why do we allow so many other things in our lives to be more important than the ministry entrusted to us by God?
The more I thought about this question, the more I saw it as a twofold problem. After years of thought and observation, I’m beginning to see that we are afraid—embarrassed, if you will—to be different. While we have a distinct message, we may shrink from delivering it, because we hesitate to be different. More precisely, we want the approval of the world, and we understand we can’t get that while delivering a message of radical reformation. It seems we are, to some degree, embarrassed or ashamed of the gospel (see Rom. 1:16).
The other part of this twofold problem is that we allow ourselves to see witnessing as a complex challenge, something that needs extensive preparation, planning, training, and equipment. We don’t witness because we have not completed our preparation; and we don’t prepare because it seems too big, too time-consuming. We perceive that vigorous witnessing requires a change in lifestyle.
While thinking about the challenges faced by our church, I continued to plan for The Ride. Planning didn’t go well. There were so many variables, so many questions to answer: How best to start training? What should my training targets and time line be? What medical supplies are essential to have along? What saddle (seat) is the best, considering I will be in it 10 to 12 hours a day?
I decided to talk things over with my friend Peter Wannemacher. Peter lives one of the most interesting lives imaginable. For instance, when he took his son, Josiah, to a Pathfinder retreat, he decided to walk the 75 miles to the retreat, camping in the woods at the side of the road (in Maine, where we live, there are endless woods at the side of almost every road). From that trek Peter and Josiah have a multitude of stories, including a run-in with a firm yet sympathetic police officer. Peter is a cyclist too. He has ridden across the United States, from California to Florida.
My head was swimming from trying to engage in planning a complex endeavor, and, without trying to, Peter gave me an answer that fit both my questions about the ride and my questions about personal ministry in our church.
“Just start pedaling,” he said. I waited expectantly for more. After a few moments Peter leaned forward and said, “Just . . . start . . . pedaling.” He went on to explain that it’s easy to get so involved in the uncertainties of planning that the actual ride never starts. Beyond that, he explained, all the abundant advice on bikes, routes, equipment, and food strategies starts being understandable only when you actually begin to do it. Only by beginning to do it can you sort out which advice about which equipment and strategies fit best.
My mind immediately made the connection between his advice and personal ministries in our church. The best way to become an effective witness is just to start witnessing. If we do that, we will begin to see tremendous value in the many tools, training materials, and equipment that are available. Further, we will be able to hone in on which materials and tools are best suited to our needs. And using them will lead to another round of learning and refinement of practice. In short, we begin by beginning, and that leads to knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
Some may say, “But wait, what about depending on the Holy Spirit? Your model sounds like it promotes self-reliance.”
This is a reasonable criticism, and I answer it two ways: First, I take it as a given that every one of us is seeking God’s guidance and asking the Spirit to go ahead of us. To that I will add that God cannot steer us if we are not moving. We have to start. We begin by beginning. After that beginning, we progress until, eventually, we have achieved through Christ a change so great it can be described only as a lifestyle change.
I took Peter’s advice and began to train by just taking my bike out and riding it. Progress came slowly. The more experienced I became at long bike rides, the better I was able to navigate the dizzying array of equipment, routes, and advice.
Beniah and I began our father-and-son ride across the United States at Bay Center, Washington, on May 1, 2016, by dipping our rear tires in the Pacific Ocean. That first day we rode 128 miles to Randle, Washington, climbing into the Cascades and glimpsing Mount St. Helens along the way. It was a brutal first day, but I had trained for it (Beniah, young and athletic, hardly needed training and outrode me the entire trip).
We crossed Washington, then we crossed Idaho on the Coeur d’Alene bicycle trail (an amazing trail I highly recommend to any cyclist). We endured Montana with its shoulderless roads, extreme speed limits, endless hills, and relentless headwinds. We gleefully rode the shoulder of Interstate 94 in North Dakota, making excellent time on that well-engineered road (yes, it is legal there, as it also is in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and several other Western states). We got to Milwaukee and crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry (in order to avoid the Greater Chicago area), then crossed Michigan, followed the edge of Lake Erie through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and crossed New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire before entering Maine. We rode hard six days a week, averaging 125 miles a day. A great deal happened on the trip, including several direct answers to prayer.
By the time we got to Maine, we had seen a great deal of the United States. But no landscape was as beautiful as the Androscoggin River valley between Bethel and Hanover, Maine. At this point we were less than an hour from home, and I was delighted—no, overwhelmed and overcome with emotion—when I first spotted Dee, who had driven out and was eagerly waiting by the side of the road to greet us. What an enthusiastic and joyous reunion we had after a month apart!
That reunion was a hint of what is waiting for us when Christ returns and claims us. When Dee and I embraced at the side of the road, she told me how proud she was of me for sticking it out and actually doing the ride. I glowed at hearing her words.
Reflecting on that later, I made the connection between our personal ministry efforts now and hearing “Well done, good and faithful servant” when we are united with Christ (Matt. 25:21).
Here’s the thing: Had I not “just started pedaling,” it is likely that I never would have ridden across the U.S., making Dee proud of me. Likewise, if we don’t “just start pedaling” with our witnessing, will we hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant”?
While Beniah and I made it home, we had one more day of riding to reach the Atlantic and complete our coast-to-coast ride. On June 1, 2016, Beniah and I completed that last leg, ending at Camden, Maine, and dipping our front tires in the Atlantic Ocean. Our ride totaled some 3,500 miles, and through all that pedaling I lost 35 pounds. For the last 60 miles of the ride we were accompanied by my friends Norman Medina of Camden, and Bob Cundiff, Northern New England Conference president. It was an amazing journey, and we celebrated it with a banquet at Dr. Medina’s home.
But it’s the end of my journey on earth that I’m really looking forward to. I’ll celebrate it at a banquet table in heaven. There I want to look around me at the people I introduced to Christ and know that the journey was a fruitful one. Is that what you want?
If so, just start pedaling.
Scott Christiansen is communication director and evangelism coordinator of the Northern New England Conference.