As I approached 40, and my eyesight started to go blurry, I realized I needed to start investing time in protecting the temple God had given me (1 Corinthians 6:19). A good friend suggested I join him in training for a bicycle ride…from Melbourne to Adelaide…to raise money for Rotary health research. The training regime wasn't too difficult but it was constant. Within a few months I was ready for the 726 km marathon.
I learned an amazing amount from the trip preparation and from the ride itself. We hear in the New Testament of Paul exhorting us to strive for the finish in life's grand race to eternity. I was never a great sportsman because of the consequences of injuries in my early teen years, but I learned to be like the tortoise…slow, steady, and a finisher. While Paul talks about keeping our eyes on the prize, for me the prize would be to actually get there!
The toughest physical challenge of my life was the third day, a 161 kilometre ride from Hamilton in Victoria to Mt Gambier in southeastern South Australia. It was a killer. The final 20 km travelled through undulating roads of expansive pine plantations of the border region.
At the time I rode a hybrid bicycle, a cross between a mountain and road bike. My co-riders were more professional, riding sleek, light racing bikes. I've got strong endurance but that day nearly saw me out. As we crested each hill I fell back a few paces. And because I‘d lost the pack's momentum I struggled to regain the ground. Within a few hills I was back 100 metres or more.
There was one rider, Jim, who came to my rescue. As I lagged I'd see his head turn to keep track of my position and then, when the next trough came, he'd slow, looping back to ride next to me. Jim would ask how I was doing, provide a few words of encouragement and then draft me back to the pack.
I couldn't have completed Day 3's gruelling 161 km without Jim. While the ride started out as a personal marathon, Jim's encouragement taught me the most important lesson I've encountered about teamwork.
The Early Church was so much like me, like all of us really. It had its ups and downs as many of us have experienced in our personal lives. In 1 Thessalonians Paul talks to his church planters about the need to encourage each other, and the importance of receiving encouragement.
Encouragement is a two-way street. It should be given and received.
I know that if Jim had not encouraged me, I'd still probably be on that road somewhere! And if my response to Jim was “Get lost!” out of pure vanity, that would have created in him a reluctance to help another rider in trouble.
Likewise the fledgling church needed to be taught why they should encourage each other. In 1 Thessalonians, chapter 4, verses 13 to 17, Paul retells the story of the Lord's coming to strengthen the resolve of the church builders. It's almost like Jim saying, “Come on, Peter. You can get up there. It's not that far!” While these words confirm what we know in our hearts, they take on a new power when we hear someone we trust utter them.
And then in chapter 5, verses 4 to 10, Paul provides words of affirmation for the journey—“you are not in darkness” (5:4); “You are sons of the light” (5:5); “He died for us” (5:10); “we may live together” (5:10). Comments like these lift up our spirits and propel us into ministry. I'm sure you can remember a time when such positive statements gave you the strength to go that extra mile.
William Barclay in his book The Letter to the Hebrews writes,
One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement…It is easy to laugh at men's ideals; it is easy to pour cold water on their enthusiasm; it is easy to discourage others. The world is full of discouragers. We have a Christian duty to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a man on his feet. Blessed is the man who speaks such a word.1
If you go to the first few verses of the first chapter of each of Paul's letters you will see a trend, where Paul is one of the great encouragers of the Bible. His writing style provides a model for encouragement that we should strive to emulate.
By the end of Day 3 I reached Mount Gambier, tired and very fatigued. The physical stress of that sector took its toll with my knee cartilage tearing the next morning. But I finished the ride, right up to the famous dressing rooms at Adelaide Oval. It was only through the encouragement of people like Jim that I made it.
1. William Barclay, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in Swindoll's Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 179.