I’m riding a Century (100 mile bike ride in one day) in an unfamiliar city. Armed with a ride sheet listing turn-by-turn instructions, my small group arrives at the start line just as the sun creeps over the horizon. Despite the early hour, the start line is filled with excitement as enthusiastic riders in colorful jerseys pack the entire street as far as the eye can see. The crowd settles for the National Anthem. But after the start gun fires, the pack moves out, quickly burning their nervous energy.
With rested legs, the first two hours pass quickly. We keep pace with the faster riders easily drafting within the peloton (that’s a French cycling term for a big pack of bike riders in a road race). The ride is marked by rest stops every 20 miles where we can refill our water bottles, eat bananas covered with peanut butter, and visit the porta-potty.
But, somewhere around mile 60 the chatter quiets and loneliness sets in. The fast cyclists quickly leave me behind and are out of sight. Similarly, the slower riders fade behind in the distance. And, my group ends up in the middle surrounded by no one, utterly alone.
The feeling of panic sets in fairly quickly. Did I miss the turn? What street am I on? Are the written directions wrong? Only the reassurance of my companions can calm me down. They guarantee that I’m on the right track. But, what do they really know? They could be as lost as I am.
The only real comfort comes from strategically posted arrows on the ground. They are fluorescent green and point out the turns. But they are small and I’m likely to miss them when I’m reading the route sheet on a moving bike, dodging a moving car, or avoiding a pole.
This week, I’m wondering what Mary, the mother of Jesus, thought about? Her race started with a colorful fanfare. While there were no cool cycling jerseys back then, I can imagine that the angel was robed in even brighter colors than the typical cyclist (do angels wear spandex?). The announcement of the impending immaculate birth would have been more exciting and more frightening than the beginning of a century bike ride. You can read Mary’s joyful response at the start line in Luke 1.
But somewhere over the next 9 months, the unexpected happens. Late in her pregnancy, she is sent to Bethlehem for a census. Not only is it uncomfortable to travel under the weight of late-term pregnancy, but all the best hotels are booked upon her arrival. Instead of a room at the Marriott, she gets to sleep in the petting zoo. I wonder if Mary is asking, “am I in the right place?”
It’s an easy question to ask when you are surrounded by silence or trouble. Most of the time, the life road map question doesn’t even come up. But when it does, it creates a sudden panic of uncertainty and doubt. Am I in the right major? Did I take the right job? Should I have bought that house? Did I miss a turn somewhere earlier in life?
As the gospel of Luke progresses, chapter 2 records Mary’s encounter with some shepherds, a devout man named Simon, and the prophetess, Anna. Each one tells Mary of their encounter with God and the revelation that her child is the Messiah. In the middle of silence (except for the sheep), Mary finds small green arrows on the ground — simple reminders that she is still on God’s route. The panic attack subsides and the reassurance is appreciated.
I also look for these green arrows when panic sets in. Unfortunately, I don’t meet many shepherds, but I do get an occasional surprise. Sometimes it is a story about how my life has touched another’s. At other times, it’s a conversation from an old friend that reaffirms my personal calling. It even occurs when reading the written directions in the Bible. I am convinced that there are many types of green arrow and that God places them on the ground right when and where we need to see them.
Did I miss the turn? At just the right moment, I spot the arrow telling me to turn right. A quarter mile up is the next rest stop. I am overcome with relief as I roll up to a table of snacks, cyclists resting on the grass, and strategically located porta-potties. I am thankful for green fluorescent arrows.