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Lessons From a Fixed-Gear Bicycle

I get made fun of for owning a bicycle with no brakes. Honestly, when I entered into the fixed-gear bicycle subculture, I didn’t know the implications it would have for my life. Eventually however, I realized that simplicity can be freeing.

My possession of one of these fine machines was a ticket into a world heretofore unexperienced. What I quickly learned is that for these hipsters, thrift-store fashionistas and grungy musicians—the bicycle is a metaphor for living. It’s a symbol of rebellion and responsibility; rebellion against a culture that values self-centered consumption and instead, taking responsibility to reduce one’s financial and environmental resource usage. Even more so, the fixed gear is a relational machine.

This new community that I had become immersed in changed the way I viewed my place in the world. Where I once valued my freedom to spend and own, I was being challenged to give and buy responsibly. Where I had assumed that an automobile was the fastest form of transportation, I was discovering that there’s no better way to beat rush hour than flying past gridlocked commuters on a bicycle. The beauty of this simple way of life awakened me to living and thinking more like Jesus.

But then I moved in with a new roommate, and neither of us had any living room furniture. This is where my struggle with living simply begins. Discussing the philosophy of simple (that is basic) living is easy to do, but walking into Goodwill to buy an ugly piece of mass produced furniture from the eighties is a different story. I had this internal battle; I questioned the role of utilitarianism and beauty. A couch is made to sit on, and the twenty-five dollar, used, smelly, dirty couch from Goodwill is sit-able. Is it something I want to look at, walk by and smell every day? Probably not.

After a few weeks with no living room furniture and hosting guests on the floor, I was meeting a friend for lunch. I biked down to his office, and we walked across the street to a local German restaurant. A little old woman with rounded, puckered lips sat us at a thick wooden table with mismatched chairs and explained what the different items on the menu were. Most of them were a combination of beef or pork with some form of potatoes smothered in a sauce named only by its color—brown or white. When our food came, the native German woman had trouble deciding which plate contained which meal and ended up just setting the plates on the table as if she knew it didn’t really matter. Sure enough, it all tasted the same, but something felt wrong. The food did its job. The meat and potatoes satisfied my hunger, but that’s about all this German food was good for. Food is meant to be more than a utility. God gave it taste and gave us taste buds—It’s meant to be enjoyed. Expand that idea to include the Goodwill couch, and the couch becomes more than a place to sit. This piece of furniture is an opportunity for expression.

I had to find some help in getting at the root of this dilemma, and to do so, I turned to a guy named David Willis and his book Notes on the Holiness of God. In the chapter, “The Holiness of Beauty,” Willis talks about the fear of earthly aesthetics being born out of a noble heart—the desire to not confuse the Creator with that which He has created. That is, to find complete satisfaction in God and God alone. But there is an even deeper understanding which St. Augustine brings to light in saying, “grace brought about the conversion of delight by which a person moved from taking highest delight in self to the restoration of highest delight in God which ordering then restored subordinate delights to their full strengths.” It’s true that all delight apart from God is subordinate to that highest of delights, but nonetheless, they are delights to which God frees us to experience.

Out of this comes an entire discussion of the nature of art and beauty, which can be summed up in this one idea: God finds beauty in the things that provoke introspection and bring the reality of life to the surface. Mary, as she anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, performed an extravagant act which, as Judas pointed out, prevented the feeding of the poor. But Jesus upheld her offering as a good gift. Likewise, Jesus upheld the simplest of acts, the giving of the widow’s mite, as an example of beautiful generosity.

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So it seems that simplicity and extravagance are neither inherently evil nor always beneficial. Both states can propel us toward or prevent us from connecting with God. I’ve often thought about the practice of making my own clothes to ensure that I’m not supporting cruel or inadequate industry. But the time that can be freed by purchasing a shirt rather than making my own might be used to better serve the people around me. The key (and subsequently the struggle) is in finding the middle ground—the balanced place where I can serve both God and humanity in a healthy way.

Excess can be either an opportunity to see God or to distract us. We live in the midst of a loud, flashy culture that having its most basic needs met, does not use its remaining energy for the pursuit of higher things, but instead chooses entertainment to fill the spare time that technology has afforded us. Think of all the times in a given day we choose ourselves over the service of others. However, excess can point us toward the reality of God. Whether it be the medieval cathedrals in Europe or the former temple built by Solomon, grand architecture has been a metaphor to point people toward God for thousands of years. The gold plated carvings of the temple reminded the people of the royalty and worth of God, and the high ceilings and massive construction of cathedrals serve to point toward the immensity of the Creator.

There is a small cultural movement toward simplicity, but we must remember that it is not simplicity in and of itself that will ensure that we are living like Jesus. It’s interesting that the very people that have challenged me to live minimally economically often live in immoral excess. It takes action in every aspect of our lives (spiritually, physically & emotionally) to change the world. Instead of allowing our resources (or, sometimes, lack thereof) to control us, we must be proactive in balancing abundance and moderation to empower us to be authors of a new narrative—a narrative of healthy rebellion and responsible living.

It was uncomfortable to have to host guests on the floor for a while, and I had to spend time and energy in the search, but eventually I found these rad couches for two-hundred dollars from a really nice lady. I had to fight against the urge to take the easy road (the stinky Goodwill couch or spending money I didn’t have) to fix my problem even though either choice would have been easy. That’s the thing with living life on a bike with no gears. It’s really hard to get up a steep hill, but pushing through will eventually get you where you’re trying to go.

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