Last week I began this sermon series called Born to be Mild?: Lessons I have learned about life and faith as a motorcycle rider with a story that I heard in seminary more than 20 years ago. Next Sunday I want to talk a little about what I learned on a special ride to California the summer of 2006. This morning I want to share a lesson of motorcycle riding I have learned in magazines, books and training DVDs: the motorcycle tends to follow your eyes.
Several years ago, on the recommendation of my dad, an experienced motorcycle rider, I bought an instructional DVD called Ride Like a Pro III. The instructor on the DVD is a man named Jerry â€œMotormanâ€ Palladino who teaches motorcycle officers in Florida how to ride. You have never seen a motorcycle ridden properly until you have seen it ridden by a motor officer. He teaches significant tips, tricks, and techniques that make one a better, safer rider when you practice the exercises that he gives.
The mental part is simple. He teaches just 3 basic techniques: proper use of what he calls the friction zone, proper use of the rear brake, and what he calls the most important technique, the proper use of your head and eyes. Now the friction zone and the rear brake are motorcycle specific, but the head and eyes technique is something that applies in several areas of life – both literally and metaphorically.
Throughout the instructional DVD the â€œMotormanâ€ tells the rider to look where you want to go, because the motorcycle will follow your eyes. That sounds simple enough, but it isnâ€™t. Our natural instinct is to keep an eye on the thing we want to avoid, to focus on the danger. But if you focus on the danger, remember that your motorcycle will follow your eyes. So get your head up and look where you want to go.
When driving down the street you shouldnâ€™t look at the oncoming traffic. You should focus instead on the open road in front of you. When turning, you should not look at the curb you want to avoid or the soft shoulder you donâ€™t want to drift off the pavement toward. Instead you should turn your head and eyes to the side on the road where you want to go. If there is a pothole or other hazard in the road, like the torn up part of Baptist right now, looking at it makes it more difficult to avoid. Look instead at the good road next to the torn up section.
The â€œMotormanâ€ also somewhat jokingly reminds the rider not to look down at the road beneath you unless that is where you want to end up. The simplest way to remember all of this is to think of this simple truth: Look where you want to go, not where you donâ€™t. Your body tends to follow your eyes.
I have found this to be true on my motorcycle, and you may have in your car as well. When I look too long at the cows, deer, or horses on the side of the road, before long I will find myself in the right half of the lane, near the shoulder, drifting toward where I am looking. When I come to church and make the U-turn by the dumpster, if I look at the dumpster I donâ€™t want to hit, even for a second, I drift just enough towards it that I am unable to make the turn. If I turn my head, and get my eyes looking at the open parking lot next to the dumpster though, I make the turn easily. My body, and my motorcycle, tends to follow my eyes.
If you are a golfer, you know this to be true as well. If you focus on the hazard – the trap you want to avoid or the water you want to carry – the odds are that is where your shot will end up. If you stand on the tee looking at the water to the right you donâ€™t want to hit, you are likely to hit a slice that will have your ball heading right for it. The trick in golf, as in motorcycle riding, is to look where you want to go. Focus on the green grass of the fairway, and you are much more likely to end up there than when you try to avoid the trap.
David and Goliath
I find this to be true in other areas of life as well. Maybe most importantly, my life with Christ. Look at the difference it makes in our Bible lesson today.
David, the youngest son of Jesse, is given the task of taking supplies to his brothers on the battlefield against the Philistine army. The description the Bible gives reminds me of the standoffs in those old spaghetti westerns. Thereâ€™s a valley with a hill on either side. The good guys are on one hill, and the bad guys are on another. They are close enough to see one another and even communicate across the valley. They camp out, taunting one another, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
Every day in this battle one of the Philistines, â€œa champion named Goliathâ€ who according to this account was about 9 feet tall (a cubit is about 1Â½ feet long and heâ€™s 6 cubits), would come out and intimidate the Israelite army by shouting toward them. Every day Goliath would challenge the Israelite army to a one-on-one competition. Rather than having a large battle between the two sides, Goliath proposes that the Israelites send out their best man to battle him, the best the Philistines had to offer, and whoever won the battle his side would be the victors for his country. In verse 11 we read Israelâ€™s response:
When Saul [the king] and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
Which makes perfect sense since they didnâ€™t have any 9-footers on their side of the valley.
David shows up with lunch just in time to hear this challenge on this particular day. Now remember that David is a kid. He has been back home taking care of the sheep while his bigger brothers serve in Saulâ€™s army. David though doesnâ€™t understand the response of the Israelite army. So he asks this very interesting question:
Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God? (vs 26)
Saul and all of Israel is looking at Goliath and the Philistine army which has paralyzed them with fear. Goliath is insurmountable.
David though, has a completely different focus. He isnâ€™t focused on the 9-foot Goliath but is, in the words of the motorcycle training video, making proper use of his head and eyes. With his head up David is looking at God, where he wants to go, which gives a whole different perspective to a 9-foot problem.
You probably know the rest of the story. David volunteers to be the one to battle Goliath. He tries on the kingâ€™s armor, but it is too big for him. So he goes out with no protection armed with just a slingshot and 5 smooth stones. He fires a stone at Goliath, hits him in the forehead, kills him and wins the battle when the Philistines flee in fear.
None of this would have been possible had David not had that different focus. Head and eyes up, not focused on what he was trying to avoid, but where he wanted to go. A 9-foot problem is huge to a 6-foot man, but nothing compared to the all-powerful God. That puts everything in perspective.
Caleb & Joshua
There is another, lesser-known story in Numbers that also speaks to me about this need for a different focus.
After the Exodus when God freed the people from slavery in Egypt, they arrive at the doorstep to Canaan, the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, sends a group of 12 spies, one from each tribe, to go to Canaan to scope it out. After 40 days in the Promised Land the spies return with conflicting reports. Ten of the spies talk about how the people who are living there â€œare stronger than weâ€ and â€œare of great size.â€ They are so big that â€œto ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to themâ€ (Numbers 13:31-33).
Caleb and Joshua, the other two spies, give a different report. Caleb, one of my biblical heroes because he has the courage to speak up even when he knows he is in the minority, says this,
The land that we went through as spies is an exceeding good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey… The Lord is with us; do not fear them. (Numbers 14:7-9).
Notice how Caleb and Joshua, like David, have a different focus. The ten spies are looking at the problem, but Joshua and Caleb make proper use of their head and eyes. Their heads are up and their focus is firmly upon God and Godâ€™s promises. Rather than being paralyzed with fear by looking at the problem, these two know that God â€œwill bring us into that land and give it to us… The Lord is with us;â€ they say, â€œdo not fear.â€
You may know the rest of this story also. The people of Israel do not listen to Caleb and Joshua, but rather choose to listen to the other 10 spies. They decide not to go into the Promised Land at this time. God gets exasperated with the people for their lack of trust in Him and sends them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. None of the people who were freed from slavery in Egypt live to see the Promised Land – none except Caleb & Joshua because, God says, â€œhe has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly.â€ (14:24).
The different spirit Caleb has over the rest of the spies is the proper use of his head and eyes. His head is up and he is looking at where he is called to go.
Defined by the problem
The Israelite army on the hill allowed Goliath to tell them who they were. At one point, Goliath asks the Israelites, â€œWhy have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul?â€ Heâ€™s asking them why they are even bothering. You know, he says, you are going to lose. This is like a little league team playing the Rockies, or a toddler battling a sumo wrestler. The Israelites buy into this. They begin to define themselves not in relationship to God, but in relationship to Goliath, their problem.
The same is true of the ten spies. When they say, â€œto ourselves we seemed like grasshoppersâ€ they are done. In that moment they are allowing the problem to define them. Compared to what we are up against, we are nothing more than grasshoppers.
David has his focus on God, which puts Goliath into perspective. When David asks, â€œWho is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?â€ He is not focused on Goliath. His focus is on God and that makes all the difference.
When Caleb says the land â€œflows with milk and honey, and this is its fruitâ€ while pointing to a cluster of grapes so big that it has to be tied to a pole carried by two men, his focus is not on the problem. That is how he can say, â€œThe Lord is with us; do not fear.â€ The ten talk about the Nephalim, the powerful enemy. Caleb talks about God and his relationship to the Lord. His focus, his head and eyes are where he wants to go. On God and the promises of God.
Not only does our motorcycle, and our body tend to follow our eyes, so does our heart, and in the words of God as recorded in Numbers, our spirit as well.
Yet human nature moves us to focus on the things that we want to avoid – the struggles and the difficulties in our lives. Iâ€™m sure that is a survival instinct, we need to know what to stay away from. Yet when we become consumed with the problems – the Goliaths and the grasshoppers – we are led down a negative spiral, driving us farther and farther down into our problems. When that happens we need a change of focus.
Comedian Brian Regan talks about the difference a physical change in focus can make. He tells the story of going to the eye doctor to have his prescription renewed after 6 years with the same one. After putting in his new contacts he says, â€œMan, I could have been seeing things! How could â€˜instantly improve visionâ€™ not be at the top of your to-do list? Ah, Iâ€™ll see tomorrow. I donâ€™t have time to see clearly.â€
We played the first 30 seconds of this video during church
â€œHow can â€˜instantly improve visionâ€™ not be at the top of your to-do list?,â€ Brian Regan asks. Yet we confess that it isnâ€™t. We laugh because we know it is true. We donâ€™t go to the eye doctor because of the work piled up on our desks. And as ridiculous as it sounds, our logic does seem to follow that we will take the time tomorrow to see better. But for now we are just going to stay mired in our funk, stuck in our blindness.
In last weekâ€™s scripture message I talked a little about how Jesusâ€™ healing of a man born blind in John 9 caused quite a stir among the Pharisees. Have you noticed that the Gospel writers are quick to tell certain stories over others. For example there are several stories of paralyzed people being able to walk again. There are also quite a few stories of Jesus restoring sight to the blind. One of the reasons is because these healings function on a symbolic level. Not only are these stories of something Jesus did, they are also stories of the metaphorical experience of the first followers of Jesus. They know that since they have come to know Jesus they see life differently. They are seeing life better.
One of the great revelations in my Christian journey is the revelation that God is not â€œout there somewhereâ€ for me to find, but is here with me all the time. I grew up in he era when my youth leader had a bumper sticker that read simply, â€œI FOUND IT!â€ That simple message was a statement of faith. Since I have learned that it is not so much that I have found the Gospel, but that I have allowed Jesus to come into my life. Jesus wasnâ€™t out there in hiding somewhere waiting for me to find him. Rather He has been with me all along (prevenient grace) waiting for me to turn to him, to draw my attention toward him.
I have seen it in action too.
God Sightings: Mission Trip focus on Jesus in service
Yesterday I was in the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. to see off our high school mission trip team on their way to Busby, MT. They spent the night in Sheridan, Wyoming and will arrive later today to spend a week in mission with the Native Americans there. Later today I will again be in the parking lot seeing off our middle school mission team on their way to Denver to work with those in need in the city.
Part of their time in Busby and Denver will be the reporting of what Group Cares, the agency that leads the trip, calls â€œGod-sightings.â€ A God-sighting is a time when you become aware of Godâ€™s presence in the ordinary. I imagine this week there will be a variety of them. Some will report a God-sighting as they saw an antelope on the hillside. Some will report a God-sighting when the work that they are doing with a group of inexperienced people, unexpectedly comes together. Some will report a God-sighting when their devotion time is particularly powerful for a member of the group. Some will report a God-sighting when a conversation they are having with the resident they are serving seems to make a deep connection that under other circumstances would not have been possible.
I think this is a great practice. I try to incorporate it into my everyday living. When the right song comes on at just the right time: God-sighting. When things are busy and Iâ€™m feeling overwhelmed, and I feel the whisper of God calming my anxiety: God-sighting. When things are quiet and I notice the beauty of the day: God-sighting. All of these moments are the presence of the holy in the mundane – God-sightings. Notice these are not God-appearances because God had been there all along. Rather they are God-sightings because my eyes have been opened to see Godâ€™s presence right here with me.
Iâ€™m much better at noticing them on mission trips, retreats, Sundays, motorcycle rides, and the like, but they are there all the time. It is all a matter of focus. We can do that through our Bible readings, through music, through prayer, and even through service. I have found that when you can change your focus to get your focus off of you and on to God and serving God by serving someone else. You body and spirit tend to follow your eyes.
My broken windshield
Last summer, about this time, I learned this lesson again. I was playing first base at Lewis-Palmer High School for our church softball team when a guy from St. Peterâ€™s hit a foul ball over third base and into the parking lot. I didnâ€™t think much of it until after the game when I found out that the ball had landed on my car – the windshield, to be precise – and shattered the glass.
We were getting ready to leave on vacation the next weekend, and so I had saved up some money so that we could have some fun while we were away. Now, I needed a windshield. I was not happy. I started to whine, saying things like, â€œEvery time we get some money together, something happens.â€ Canâ€™t you just hear it? Things like this always happen. I can never get ahead. Youâ€™ve been there too, right?
It didnâ€™t happen right away. I needed a nightâ€™s sleep feeling sorry for myself before something happened. But the next morning I woke up with a new perspective. How fortunate, I thought, that I had the money saved up. This didnâ€™t have to come out of the budget. This didnâ€™t have to come out of some other account for something else. We had some money to get this fixed. If this had to happen, this was a good time for it.
That little shift in thinking made all the difference in the world. Instead of seeing God as one who was messing with me, doing stuff to me so that I couldnâ€™t have the stuff I wanted. I began to see God as a God of abundance who had provided me with what I needed before it even happened.
Same circumstances; different focus.
Oh, and the story has a happy ending too. Our church members on the softball team took up a collection and gave me enough money for the new windshield! Yay church!
We are living in a time when it is fairly easy to get our focus all out of whack. I donâ€™t know what your difficulty is. Maybe for you it is a money issue: the bills and the collections phone calls make you feel like a grasshopper. Or maybe for you it is a work issue: you are in a job that is stressing you out but you canâ€™t leave – or worse, you have been let go and are struggling to find work. You can see the promised land, but it is inhabited by those far more powerful than you. Maybe your stress is a relationship that is falling apart, or the loneliness of being without a partner. Maybe your Goliath is a diagnosis that has left you speechless, or a family issue that is beyond your power to overcome. Maybe your addiction makes you feel small.
The Israelites in the wilderness let the problem define them. The army facing Goliath allowed Goliath to paralyze them with fear. David, Caleb, and Joshua were immune to that and were able to face the struggles because they had a different focus. They werenâ€™t looking at the problem in front of them. Their focus was on the God who was calling them.
The beginning of the solution is to change your perspective. Like David you need to ask, â€œWhat is the bill, this work issue, this relationship issue, this illness, this addiction, that it should defy this child of God?
Iâ€™m not suggesting this is some magical solution. At some point David had to go to battle with Goliath with nothing more than a sling and a stone. Later the Israelites had to go to battle with those living in the promised land. Itâ€™s not as if they trusted God and then poof – everything was better. No. Their focus on God wasnâ€™t the end of the solution, it was the beginning. Their focus on God gave them the strength to confront that which was more powerful than they. And it was their faith in God that gave them the power to work it through and overcome.
Motorman Jerry Palladino says it well – your motorcycle follows your eyes. So where are you looking today? On the problem you need to avoid, or on the God who is there to give you strength even in your times of struggle?
My advice to you is simple and comes from a motorcycle instructional video: â€œLook where you want to go.â€