The Strength of the Spinning Wheel
A Sermon by Nathan Mesnikoff
I had neck surgery a couple of months ago—my second spine surgery in two years. Overall, my recovery is going remarkably well—not too much pain, sleeping OK. I couldn’t drive for a month and a half, which was a real annoyance. But most frustratingly, I am not allowed to ride my bicycle for three months, three whole months—a long time especially considering I had just saved up enough to buy a new bike a few weeks before the surgery. I bought it because I really enjoy riding and also in an effort to inspire myself to a moderate amount of exercise. Aside from the health benefits, exercising gives me a sense of control over and hopefulness about my physical state. I’m glad I’m so eager to get back to riding. I have, like many people, a love-hate relationship with exercise.
I know I need to move my body, and I know very well that I genuinely feel better when I do. When I was younger I practiced Japanese martial arts with an almost fanatic passion. For a long time, karate, judo, and aikido were my main form of exercise. I slowly stopped for a number of reasons during grad school. My back problems have put an end to any intentions of returning to judo or karate. But I can ride my bike and I really enjoy it. The feeling of cruising along, the speed, the wind in my hair, well at least on my face. I actually found myself in the garage a few days after surgery simply staring at my bike. Pathetic, but true.
Well, I didn’t come here today to talk about my workout schedule and how I keep this slender figure. You see, as I’ve been pondering about bicycles and exercise I read a book that shifted, so to speak, my thinking as to where strength comes from and pointed me toward an unlikely place.
Riding with the Blue Moth was written by Bill Hancock, director of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The first few pages of the book detail how wonderful his life was—a job he adored, a wife he loved even more, two sons with whom he had very close, loving relationships, a new grandchild, friends, money: the whole proverbial enchilada. But then his older child Will is killed in a plane accident and he and his wife, Nicki, are struck by a profound and understandable depression. Their lives have changed forever and they are lost. They have no idea how to move forward.
Now, I had just requested the book from the library along with a bunch of others on bicycling—some on repair and several stories about long journeys by bike. I was thinking this book was just about a guy who rode across the country. I hadn’t bargained for this much drama, but the writing was good and I was drawn through the book. The title, Riding with the Blue Moth, comes from the author’s metaphor for depression—it seemed like a large blue moth that came and went, at times disappearing only to reappear unexpectedly, smothering him with the pain, confusion, and guilt surrounding his son’s death.
Hancock, pedaling through the deep South, spends his hours in and out of the saddle carefully observing various cultural elements, a close study made possible by the slow speed and intimacy with which he is passing through the region.
In Linden, population 2,400, I rode past the Marengo County Academy, a private high school. Laughing teenagers piloted flashy vehicles out of the parking lot. A couple of miles north was the Linden public high school. [Racial] Integration had caused private schools to spring from the ground like rain brings mushrooms. In the last six days, a dozen white people had told me to avoid blacks. No black person ever turned tables. As I struggled to find the meaning, I happened to look down at my bicycle wheel. The wheel is supported by flimsy spokes and gets its muscle from the spokes as they pull toward the center. That force, from pulling together, gives the bike’s wheel its strength. Somehow, many people had managed to overlook that simple technique in life: pulling together creates strength far greater than what each of us could muster individually.
A bicycle wheel is, indeed, a marvel of engineering and hidden strength. You take a rim made of thin aluminum, a circle that should crush instantly with any real weight on it, and you attach it to a small hub with very thin little metal spokes that would also bend and fold with any force applied. You put these elements together and all of a sudden you have an incredibly strong system—one that easily puts up with my 200 lbs going over curbs and potholes on the streets and even worse abuse off road. So how do we go from having simply a collection of individually fragile items to the strength of the spinning wheel? It comes from, in the first place, bringing the items together, and then binding them strongly with a fair degree of tension.
As I thought over the author’s words, and about the bicycle wheel, I continued to see how astute Hancock was in his observation. A wheel isn’t all that different than a community. You take a bunch of individuals who by themselves have real, but in many way quite limited strength, bind them together with bonds of love and necessity and then throw in a fair degree of tension and stress and, if it comes together properly, you have a system with tremendous strength and the ability to support great strain.
The bicycle wheel, and its unlikely strength, makes me think about UU faith communities. We are a curious bunch. We don’t have a unifying faith system anymore—unlike our Unitarian and Universalist forebears who had more specific beliefs that they shared. We hold very little in common in terms of specifics. We certainly have common threads—a concern for social justice, a belief that each individual must find their own path, etc, but we rarely agree on specific theological points. And yet we form communities, we come together to share in our individual journeys and have company along the way, sometimes have another path or perspective pointed out to us.
We exist in tension with each other and, right now, with what feels like the dominant culture. Within our congregations our lack of common faith means we have much more to negotiate between ourselves. This tension can pull us far apart from each other, leaving our congregations feeling disjointed. We see this disjointed-ness when we have trouble raising money. We see this separation when we have trouble finding enough people to serve on needed committees. We see the centrifugal force that threatens to whirl us away from each other when we allow the diversity of our opinions on politics, theology or ministers to lead to the division of our communities. Every congregation I have been a part of has these energies and arguments that move us further away from each other.
And yet, there are forces that can help us harness our tensions. Ideals and values that can take the tension and use it, like a bicycle wheel does, to create strength, to create communities that can support heavy weights and carry us great distances. Our principles and purposes can act as the rim and hub of our wheel—defining our general form, lending us shape, but the strength still has to come from the spokes, from the individuals as they contribute. But you can’t exclude any part. The strength doesn’t come without the stress. A wheel free from stress, with all the spokes loose, quickly falls apart. Indeed a wheel with loose spokes is, interestingly enough, said to be out of true. We are true when we all have a certain amount of tension, when we are all pulling toward the center.
Without our tensions we would not be who we are in this free religious tradition. I hope that increasingly we perceive that freedom as a “freedom to” rather than “freedom from.” Freedom to, for me, implies positive choice. We are free to choose to associate, free to choose our own path, free to express our political views, free to love who we will. Freedom from, what political philosophers call negative freedom or liberty, implies more impositions from the outside. Freedom from prejudice, freedom from totalitarian governments—democratic or otherwise, freedom from the religious baggage of our birth that so often keeps up trapped. Freedom from is good too, but I would hope for us the autonomy and self-determination that the positive freedom to implies. I don’t see this as being in conflict with all I’ve said about being a spoke in the wheel; we make a choice to be part of this community, to be part of that strength, not be coerced by external or internal forces.
All faith communities have internal tensions—this is true of us as well as evangelical mega-churches like New Life church here in the Springs or the most conservative mosques or synagogues in the Middle East. To be in community is to have disagreements. It is sometimes easy to think that our more conservative cousins have it much easier than we, but that is an error in thinking. It leads us to think of other faith traditions and political views as monolithic structures when they are in fact not. My time as a chaplain here in Colorado Springs has been an eye-opener to me. Just as Bill Hancock had his own prejudices and expectations both about people and the Blue Moth of depression confounded, I too have had my assumptions and prejudices exposed. Even in as conservative a town as Colorado Springs, I have been welcomed and loved despite the fact that my own faith journey is quite different than many of my colleagues. I had too often equated certainty of belief for arrogance, when I was in fact the arrogant and overly certain one. I assumed the tension between us would be too great, but once again, properly used and understood the tension can lead to tremendous and unexpected strength.
Bicycles are not the only place we find circles of surprising strength. The martial arts I used to love so much are not without their own spinning wheels—several judo throws are known as “wheels” for the way the person gets spun around, and the martial art I practiced the most, Aikido, consists primarily of circular movements. Judo and Aikido are cousins, both deriving from older arts and both focus heavily on using your opponents weight and momentum against him or her. On many occasions, both here and in Japan, I saw elderly experts toss younger, bigger, stronger players as if they were rag dolls. In fact I was the younger, bigger, stronger rag doll on a number of occasions. I was always amazed at the incredible skill these little old men had and how little trouble they had throwing me around no matter how hard I resisted.
Aikido and Judo both ask practitioners to learn the difficult lesson of harmonizing with an attack rather than simply opposing. In Aikido one doesn’t block and strike, instead you learn to take the incoming energy and spin it off in a direction that is harmless to both you and the attacker. Here we are harnessing the energy of the wheel and its motion.
And again strength is found in an unexpected place. If the lessons from the bicycle wheel are about the role of the individual in community and the need to accept tension and the strength that comes with this, what do the wheels in Judo and Aikido offer? I believe here we learn about the strength in weakness or perhaps more accurately in softness, in flexibility, and acceptance.
The world’s spiritual paths are also, of course, filled with images of circles: from Dante’s vision that culminates in the heavens and the believer circling the divine in heaven, spinning round and round, driven by the motive force of love; to Buddhism’s wheel of existence; to the well-known Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. Circles are among the oldest symbols for life, love, and nature. The Sufi Poet Jalal’adin Rumi, who wrote our opening hymn, founded the Islamic order of mystics known for their spinning dance, the Whirling Dervishes. Rumi invited us to, “Come out of the circle of time, and into the circle of love.”
Certainly the Wiccans and Pagans and other holistically and environmentally-minded here would remind us of the great circles in which we all participate—that of life and death, the seasons, and the almost infinite circular repeating cycles of nature. They would also remind us of the dangers, the loss of strength we suffer and havoc we create on our planet when we try to ignore or remove ourselves from these cycles. Here the strength comes from knowing and accepting our place in these macroscopic circles, allow the energy inherent in the wheel to carry us with it, rather than struggling against it or looking for ways to circumvent it. When in ritual we call the corners or draw a circle we are not, to my understanding, separating ourselves from the world around, we are not creating walls or boundaries that exclude, but rather we are embedding ourselves in the world more firmly, pointing out our connections to each other and the planet.
We are, of course, always spinning—on this planet, in this solar system, in the galaxy, in this body. Our blood circulates, the tides ebb and flow, the moon spins, our days and years pass. We are constantly immersed in circles within circles. I think the trick lies in finding ways of moving with those cycles, of hearing the hidden harmonies, of surrendering to the tides we so often struggle against. That is one reason we come to this place, to create a circle of care, to carve out a small niche in our busy lives so that we might have the chance to listen and observe the cycles of our souls.
And so I’ve counted down the months, weeks, and days until I can ride again, until I can connect with the spinning wheels of my bicycle. In the meantime I hope to pay close attention to some of the other cycles in my life, try to catch their rhythms and contribute what strength I can to these other wheels, other patterns and cycles. I’m going to try to listen to poet May Sarton when she advises that, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.” I’m trying to find a bit of grace and maybe a little strength in this time off my preferred wheels. May we all lend our strength to whatever rapidly spinning circles we move in and are part of. And may we find the time to slow down enough to catch glimpses of the patterns so that we may appreciate all the more the inevitable turnings of the wheel.
As it says in the 2nd chapter of Ecclesiastes:
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun:
Amen and Blessed be.