When we were kids, in the fifties (yes, I mean the nineteen-fifties) our parents used to say that my brother Doug was accident-prone. What they meant was, he had a defective warning light. In normal children, as you know, that light blinks in their brain just before they do something like jump from a moving vehicle, dive in an unfamiliar body of water, climb a rusty water tower, or otherwise endanger life or limb. Doug’s warning light had evidently shorted-out in some dirty pond.
Our home in the NE Baltimore area called Overlea was on Powell Avenue, a dead end street, and we lived at the end of the dead part. I know it sounds weird that a dead end street would be called an avenue, but I don’t make the rules, although, of course, I should. Today our street would be described as a cul-de-sac, but this was back before America purchased the word cul-de-sac from the people of France. I understand we got it for just $300 billion and Euro-Disney. This is a lot more than we paid for the word chauffeur, picked up just before the war for next to nothing; but it’s quite a bit less than we paid for the word carte blanche, for which, I was told, we gave the French a veritable blank check.
Back then (as I was saying before the French intruded into my story) our street was just a dead end. This made it a great place for baseball. We would play on summer evenings until we could no longer see the ball; in other words, until it got tres difficile. Often, in those games, the ball would end up in the sewer, so one of us would have to venture down to retrieve it. You might be thinking I’m setting things up for a story about Doug risking his life to retrieve a baseball, but actually, I plan to tell you about something that happened up on the surface of the street, so you can get your mind out of the sewer. The baseball reference was just an old man’s reminiscence. In fact, I realize now, you can go ahead and skip this paragraph.
Powell Avenue was a great street, not only for baseball, but for riding bikes. Back then, the street was on a substantial hill which descended toward the dead end. I’ve gone back there as an adult and discovered that in the five decades since I left, the hill has leveled out considerably; and all the houses have shrunk. I’m told that scientists refer to the phenomenon as Global Flattening or Global Contraction. Some contraction experts believe that if the world’s major countries don’t take some sort of concerted action on it very soon, say, by next Thursday, we may reach the point of no return, and eventually, everything will flatten out so much that the Alps will be the size of sand dunes, and sand dunes will be the size of ant hills. There seems to be no clear consensus on what size ant hills will be in the flat future; some experts believe they won’t be hills at all. But the important thing for you to remember for the next three minutes is that on the particular day of which I speak (or the day of which I will speak if I will just get to the story) the hill that we lived on was prodigious.
Doug must have been eight or ten at the time, or about the age that parents begin to leave their children in gas stations on trips. He was riding his bike down the hill, and apparently the thought struck him, “I bet I can put my feet up on the seat as I coast down.” (No warning light flashed.) I suspect the inspiration for this madness was the TV show, Circus Boy, featuring Micky Dolenz as Corky. He did things like ride elephants and feed tigers, and he later became one of the Monkees, which is ironic, or platonic, or something. I might know for sure, but I devoted my school years to watching TV and playing baseball.
Perhaps this would be a good place to mention, if it’s not already evident, that Doug wasn’t the only clueless child of Mildred and Don Sukhia. We were a lifelong embarrassment, in particular, to our long-suffering father, a graduate of both MIT and Cal-Tech. Your neighborhood may have had a sign reading, “Slow, Children.” Our neighborhood sign read: “Very Slow Children.”
So down the hill came Doug, with his feet on the seat. There was plenty of room on the seat, because this was back before the banana-seat rage, conceived, in the seventies I think, by someone determined to do his part to slow the world’s birthrate. In the fifties, bike seats were actually big enough to accommodate one’s derriere. You will note, in passing (or at least, I will note, in passing) that we are reminded by the word derriere just how indebted we are to the French. We are indebted, not only for words like derriere and chauffeur and cul-de-sac (the best we Americans could come up with was butt, driver and dead-end) but for things like their assistance during our War of Independence, or The War of 1812----you know, the war of their assistance. By the way, did anybody ever thank them for that? We got the Statue of Liberty from them. What did they get from us?
I know what you’re thinking:
“We gave them that Eye-full Tower didn’t we?”
It's the Eiffel Tower, and No, as a matter of fact, we didn’t give it to them.
“Well we built that big triumphant Arch thing for them didn’t we?
(Sometimes I wonder why only imbeciles seem to read these articles). No, actually I think Napoleon had something to do with the Arc de Triomphe.
“Well we saved their dairy-airs in the war. That’s what they got from us, and that’s enough.”
(I think the word you want is derriere, previously mentioned, several times). Yes, I thought you might mention the war, but think about it. We were drawn into it by the day that will live in infamy, and we would have sided with England against Germany even if France had not been invaded by blond goose-stepping thugs. You might say we liberated France only because it was on our way to Berlin.
Anyway, can we forget about France for a few minutes? I was telling you about Doug riding down Powell Avenue.
So down the hill he came, with his feet on the seat, hunched over and holding the handle-bars. (There was no such thing as a bicycle helmet in those days. These were the baby-boom years, when there were more kids than rabbits; so nobody bothered with things like helmets or car seat belts.) Then the thought struck Doug, “I bet I can let go of one of the handle-bars and begin to stand on the seat.” (No warning light/no warning buzzer.) Now he was crouching on the seat with one hand on the handle-bar and his other arm extended out for balance.Then the thought struck him, “If I let go of the other handle-bar, I’ll be able to fully stand on the seat. “ (No warning light/no buzzer/no bells/no sirens---yet). I have a distinct recollection of Doug coasting down Powell Avenue, precariously standing, momentarily, on his bicycle seat, as if he were Corky on his elephant. His arms were extended out toward the curbs, and the bike was headed for the aptly named dead-end. I have another distinct impression of him unconscious on the pavement.
After that, everything is a blur for me, and I guess it’s even more of a blur for Doug. I’m sure that one of the remaining four conscious children ran for Mom, she phoned for an ambulance, and Doug was rushed to the nearest HIC, hospital for idiot children. You will be happy to hear that as far as we know, Doug suffered no long-term damage from his interaction with the pavement, and his balancing abilities continue unabated to this day. He was even on a college circus team, swinging on the trapeze and such, but I don’t know that he ever tried the bike trick again.
Standing on the seat of a moving bike is quite a balancing act; so is the Christian life. We are called to be salt and light in the world, without being conformed to the world. It’s not an easy task. We can fall off on the left side of the bike. We can be so engaged with the world that we adopt the world’s philosophies and lifestyles. Some of the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth who were addressed in the New Testament letters to the Corinthians had become so entwined with unbelievers that there was little or no discernible difference between them and the world. Living in a port city dominated by the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, a temple staffed, historians tell us, with 1000 prostitutes in the service of their goddess, the new believers were addressed by the Apostle Paul:
Flee sexual immorality… do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20)
Or we can fall off on the right side of the bike. This is what the Pharisees, a group of prominent religious leaders in Jesus’ day, tended to do. (Of course it was harder for them to balance than it is for us, because of their long robes, and the fact that they had never ridden a bike before.) They seemed to view separation from the world as the essence of holiness, and they were scandalized when they saw Jesus interacting with sinners.
“How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
Their problem with tax collectors was not just the usual one----they take our money and give it to the government. These tax collectors were commonly regarded as thieves who skimmed from the taxes, and they were hated for being in the employ of the despised Roman occupiers of Palestine. Jesus responded:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2: 16-17)
If we are so separate from the world that we don’t interact with those who need Christ, we are like salt that is no longer salty; it has become worthless. Covenant Seminary Professor Jerram Barrs tells of a non-Christian (a physician, I think) who said to him: “The trouble with you Christians is, you all live in a cocoon. Who’s going to reach people like me?”
I like the way one of our church’s college students, Abby Blackburn, put it recently. Here’s my paraphrase: If you picture the world as a swimming pool, some Christians sit on the side of the pool, only immersing their toes---having little impact. Others dive in and are dissolved, like a packet of Splenda™ or Equal™ (keep that bitter pink stuff out of my pool). The trick, she said, is to dive into the pool, but to remain distinct from it---to not dissolve in it.
It’s also a good idea to wear ear plugs. They might help keep your warning light from shorting out.