I thought I was clipping along pretty well on my bicycle, probably about 17 mph heading home on Lowes Creek Road with the sun close to setting to my left. Perhaps because of the virus, I have done more bicycling this year than ever before, and now, nearing the end of summer, I was feeling really quite strong. I even had the passing thought during this ride that I’m actually getting stronger as I get older—defying the laws of nature.
Not long after having this thought I heard a sound behind me. At first I thought it might be a car approaching, so I moved closer to the right edge of the road. Then the sound became louder but less like a car. I thought it sounded like, perhaps, a flock of low-flying, very low-flying, geese. Could geese be following me? I had to look, and as I turned my head, I saw not fowl but human bicyclers coming upon me very quickly. I nodded to the lead man, who only said “There are eight of us,” as he whizzed by. Sure enough one by one, all eight with nary a foot between each of them passed me at a speed I myself could only attain going downhill with a tailwind. I would say they were going at least 25 mph, probably a little more, based on the fact that they were out of sight in less than a minute.
I’d like to say they were angels, not men like me, because then it would have been easy not to compare myself to them. But alas, they were men, fast men who made me feel bad because, compared to them, I was less than I should be. I was slow.
There is a cardinal rule in the spiritual life that few of us live out very well: Don’t compare yourself to others! Yes, we can learn from the good example of others, but when all is said and done, God didn’t make you to be like someone else; God made you to be you.
The Jesuit author James Martin tells a beautiful story about a friend of his, Rick, who was born without a right arm. When he was in first grade, his teacher heard that a relic of St. Francis Xavier—actually the saint’s right arm—was “on tour” so to speak, and many of the area’s faithful were going to see it and touch the case that held it, in hopes of being healed. Rick’s teacher told his mother who showed up at school and took Rick out of class to take him to see the relic. While he was gone, his classmates all prayed for a miracle, a new arm for Rick. When he returned to class the same as before, they were all disappointed, and Rick, who wasn’t really expecting any miracle, caught their feeling of disappointment. But someone else had a different reaction. When he got home, his older sister was hiding behind the window drapes and when she peeked out and saw him, she jumped out at him delighted. “Oh great!” she said. “I’m so happy nothing happened, because I like you the way you are.” It was a healing moment Rick always remembered.
It is always good, and important, to remember that God likes us as we are. Yes, we are called to deeper conversion every day, but this is not so that God will like us. Rather, realizing that God likes us helps us be better—more joyful, more generous, more comfortable in our own skin.
There is a new fountain on the campus of UW—Eau Claire. It is round, about twenty feet in diameter, with wide and gentle springs of water emerging from what look like river rocks. Toward evening, blue and white light colors the waters. I often bicycle past it on my way home, at sunset. Typically, no one is there. I think of God as like that fountain, beautiful, flowing with life, often with no one noticing but living, and loving, nonetheless.
That night when I felt old and slow in comparison to the others, I stopped at that fountain. I needed to be close to these waters to remind myself that I am, to quote the psalmist, wonderfully made, that these living waters live also in me, not because of anything I’ve done or might do in days ahead, but because of who I am in God: Treasured, gifted and invited into these waters.