Do you remember your first bicycle? I do. It was a Huffy covered in pink and yellow flowers. It had a banana seat, a basket attached to the front of the handlebars and two big clunky training wheels.
Although it was almost thirty years ago, I still remember the way I felt when my parents gave it to me: Thrilled. Independent. Even a little more mature because it was the same size as my older brother’s bicycle.
I rode my bike with pride every day until I noticed a trend in my neighborhood. It occurred to me that Saturday after Saturday, more and more of my friends were having their training wheels removed. This trend continued until I was the only one who hadn’t had them taken off. It wasn’t long before I decided that it was time to have a talk with my father.
“Daddy,” I inquired… “Can we take off my training wheels? I don’t want ‘em anymore.”
My mother panicked. “She’s too small to ride her bike without the training wheels!” Dad disagreed, and within a few minutes, he was outside with his toolbox augmenting my most prized possession. When he was finished, he hoisted me up onto the bicycle seat and lifted the kickstand. It was time for my first lesson.
“Okay, Crystal. Peddle. I’ll hold on so you don’t fall.” I peddled with all my might while Daddy held on to the back seat and ran behind me. Our lessons continued over the course of two or three weekends. Dad would go outside with me and hold on to the back of the bicycle, running and encouraging me to sit up straight, while protecting me from falling.
And then, one Saturday was different. Dad hoisted me up onto the bicycle and lifted the kickstand. “Okay, Crystal. Start peddling. I’m here.” I started peddling and the bicycle blasted forward. Daddy ran behind me, holding on tight. I heard him behind me, “Good job! You can do it!”– so I peddled faster and harder. It was exhilarating. I had never ridden so fast before.
After a few moments, I heard in the distance: “Crystal! You’re doing it all by yourself!” I experienced a moment of intense confusion and thought to myself: “Why does Daddy sound so far away?” I looked at the rear of my bicycle and realized that I was riding alone. Daddy had let go. I panicked, fell off the bike and cried out for my father. He came running to my side, picked me up, and walked me and my bicycle home. (Mom was not happy, but that’s another story. *wink*)
I recently realized that the spiritual journey can be a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. Most of us begin in community at a church or other institution. It’s where we learn the ropes and get our “training”… This is a comfortable place because we’re not alone there. Our friends and family are there with us experiencing faith– but tethered to the guiding hand of our doctrines and traditions.
Along the spiritual path, there are also those who decide to “break free” for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s because there seems to be a breakdown between the way religion actually works and the way we’re told it’s supposed to work. For others, it’s because we see that others have walked away without catastrophic consequences in their own personal lives. (Yes, in some circles –including my former churches– it is believed that those who leave the faith are under “God’s curse”.) And for others, there’s simply an element of their own humanness that cannot be fulfilled with one doctrine or tradition.
I do not oppose the guiding hand of tradition. In fact, I fully acknowledge that tradition seems to work like a charm for some people. However, for others, organized religion works better as a springboard to becoming independently spiritual. I think it’s important to understand religion in these terms and affirm the validity of both experiences. Some people prefer the guidance that organized religion can offer, while others prefer to break free and ride more independently.
There are certain benefits to organized religion that cannot be duplicated, but there is also something to be said for riding alone to see what’s on the other side of the mountain. It can be scary to untether oneself from the guiding hand of the familiar– but those who have dared to try will tell you it’s worth the journey. And frankly, that’s okay.