On Riding Bikes and Modeling Love

Sometime in August or September of last year, Katie and Abby were riding their bikes in the front yard while I tidied up inside. I peeked out at them from time to time, and it was clear they were doing more than just riding. They were playing some sort of game.

One of them would ride from the garage to the gate and back again, pedaling as hard as she could the entire time. The other would wait, cheering, at the top of the loop. When the rider reached the top, she would stagger off of her bike to a waiting chair, where her sister would bring her a play cup and plate. After a bit, one or the other of them would hop back on her bike and tear off down the hill.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Intrigued, I finished up my chores and made my way outside.

“Hey, girls. Whatcha up to?”

They grinned up at me.

“We’re playing Agony Ride!”

Ah, the Agony Ride.

It’s the fundraiser Jonathan loves to hate.

Each year, at the end of July, a small army of cyclists and support people descend on the (very flat) Sierra Valley, high in the mountains. Each rider gathers sponsorships on a flat-rate or per-mile basis and then commits to pedaling as far as they can in 24 hours. The funds support the work of Christian Encounter Ranch, a residential program where young people come to receive love, counseling, schooling, spiritual guidance, and an opportunity to recover from the wounds inflicted by society, family situations, and their own poor choices.

Jonathan’s ridden it enough years now to know exactly what to expect. It will be hot and windy during the day and cold and dark at night. His hands will go numb. His back and his rear and his legs and his arms (and other parts that don’t need mentioning) will ache.

For Jonathan, anyway, and the way he rides it (no sleep–or rather, no intentional sleep; short breaks for food and hydration; pushing himself to consistently pump out 300+ miles), it isn’t easy. It isn’t fun. You might even call it, well, agonizing.

And yet, every year, he spends July contacting sponsors and putting in long training rides and, come the end of the month, he gets on his bike and he does it again.

It starts young, the mimicking does.

At seven months (both the longest and the shortest seven months!), Emmeline is all wide, curious eyes.

(Well, except at night. At night, she’s scrunched-tight, angry, not-sleeping-definitely-not-tired eyes).

She watches our mouths, our hands, our faces with careful attention, copying the sounds we make, the ways we move, the expressions we display.

At this age, it’s adorable and sweet and and necessary. After all, how else is she to learn how to be a person in this big, wide, interesting world?

It’s only when they start to get a bit older, when my poor attitude or impatient tone or intemperate words are reflected back to me in my children, that things become scary.

Kids are sponges and observers and imitators. They internalize so much.

And I, well, I’m an imperfect model at best.

Because it’s July and Jonathan is asking people to sponsor him, we were recently talking with friends about the Ranch. We shared about the Agony Ride, about the profound impact this demonstration of sacrifice has on the students, many of whom have never experienced such a tangible expression of love. We told them about the program, about the staff and the interns, about the design and structure and purpose of the place.

Inevitably, the question was raised: “What’s the success rate?”

It’s a fair question. A good one. If you’re going to invest in a place like the Ranch, you want to know that it works.

I thought about the response a good friend used to give–that is, that the success rate is 100%, because every student is introduced to Jesus–but I didn’t say that. Instead, we talked about some of the students we’ve known. Those who some would see as the shining stars of the ministry, but also those who left the Ranch and fell back into old habits, old patterns. It was worth it, we said, even for those in that last category, because you never know what God is doing behind the scenes. You never know how long it will take for those tiny seeds, sown in faith, to sprout.

In the end, Jonathan shrugged. “If I didn’t think it made a difference,” he said, “I wouldn’t keep doing this each year.”

Abby’s at the prime age for pretend play.

After we’ve been to a restaurant, she walks around the house with a notepad, offering people the special and taking down their orders. For weeks after our semiannual visit with the dentist, she’ll convince Katie or Miles to lie down on the recliner and open wide so she can take a look. She loves to set up the music stand in our entryway and play church, singing and preaching and reading from the bible with overexaggerated facial expressions and hand motions.

She loves to do all the things she sees grown-ups do.

And, while it all-too-often feels as though she only ever sees me blow it or lose my temper or act selfishly, I try to remind myself that she also sees me apologize. She sees me try again. She sees me love her, and her siblings, and their dad.

When she’s pretending, she doesn’t act like the mom who has too little sleep and too many excuses. She acts like the mom who tenderly cradles her baby, even when that baby’s crying, or like the dad who rides his bike selflessly for others. She doesn’t play Angry Mom or Tired Dad or Late for Church (Again).

She plays Agony Ride.

I said the Agony Ride is the fundraiser Jonathan loves to hate, and it’s true. Talk to him about it at any point in July, and he’s likely to tell you it’s miserable and awful, that nobody should ever do it. He’s notoriously grumpy about it all.

And yet, he keeps doing it, year after year.


Because he believes the Ranch works. That it changes lives. Or, rather, that God changes lives through the people and the ministry of the place.

Because, for the students at the Ranch, the Agony Ride isn’t a game. It isn’t even just a model of how to be a person in the world, a person who loves and gives and sacrifices–though, for young people who have had a dearth of such models, it certainly is that.

No, for the students at the Ranch, the Agony Ride is a tangible demonstration that they are loved, that their lives have value. It is, for many, the event that marks a turning point, the difference between life and death.

Jonathan rides the Agony each year because love sometimes always requires sacrifice. And my kids have a daddy who shows them how to love others well.

The 40th annual Agony Ride takes place next weekend, July 29-30. They’re still recruiting volunteers to help support riders–learn more here. If you’d like to partner with us in loving the students at the Ranch by sponsoring Jonathan, you can do so here.

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