My earliest memory of God has less to do with church than it does with a bicycle accident the summer I turned 10.
I've never had a particularly good relationship with bikes. They're a bewildering concoction of gears and wheels, handlebars and chains, spokes and frames. I rode a bike daily on my Pittsburgh Press newspaper route, but I never felt completely at home with it. Ours was an uneasy relationship, born of necessity, rather than a match ordained in the stars.
You couldn't ask for a sharper contrast than with my older brother Bill. Bill could patch holes in the inner tubes of his bikes when he was 8; I'm almost 37 now, and I still don't know how to grease the chain. When he was in college, Bill would take off all day to go mountain biking. When I was 29, I lost control of my 21-speed and knocked myself out in the parking lot.
Somehow, the summer of 1980, Bill convinced me to go on a bike ride with him and his friends to the McDonald's in Murrysville. I'd like to say that he enticed me with sweet promises of how much fun it would be to spend time together and strengthen the deep fraternal bond between us. The truth is probably that our mother, who was working at the toy store that day, made him take me, and that he made sure I knew what a loser I would be if I kept him from going by refusing to leave the house.
The journey from our parents' home in Level Green to the McDonald's in Murrysville takes about 20 minutes in a car. It begins on roads with comforting names like Old Gate Road and Home Drive, but takes a turn for the worse about a mile into the journey, once you reach Murrysville Road.
As its name implies, Murrysville Road exists primarily to get people from Level Green to Murrysville, and back again. It's a road made for cars, not bikes, and because it's the principal route to retail shopping and professional services in downtown Murrysville, it's a busy road, with cars going 35 or 40 mph once they clear the residential area in Level Green. Sometimes even sooner.
Murrysville Road crests about a quarter mile after you leave Home Drive. From there, for the next two miles, it's all downhill on a narrow, winding and often poorly paved road made scenic on the left by a gorge, and on the right by the sheer rock that workers cut through years ago when they built the road. If you weigh just 60 pounds, lack the natural confidence to coast without braking, and you ride a clunker of a bike, it's a terror.
I braked the whole way down the hill, biting my lip, tensing up any time a car came near me, and feeling every inch the loser because I couldn't bear to go faster than 15 mph. At every bend I heard them up ahead, urging me to ease off on the brakes and just coast so that our trip to get lunch wouldn't become a trip to get dinner.
When the bottom of the hill was almost in sight, I finally gave in to their prodding. I eased off the brakes and let myself go. The bike sped up right away just in time for the pot hole. The bike went in and wrenched to the side, and the long metal rods that made it easy to adjust the height of the seat caught on the edge of the hole. In an instant the bike went from 20 mph to a complete stop.
Thanks to Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion, I continued to move in the direction I already had been going. I slammed into the handlebars, twisting them so far forward that they practically touched the front tire, and landed on the pavement headfirst.
At that point, I mostly remember screaming. My brother got help at a nearby house, where an EMT from the local ambulance base happened to be visiting his parents. Bill and his friends went on their way to McDonald's, while an ambulance took me to the hospital, where doctors removed gravel and dirt from my forehead before stitching me up.
And it was there that I first became aware that God could be more than a character in my children's Bible. My mother, who had left work when the call came in about my accident, remarked that God had been looking out for me that day, since there had been no cars on the road when I took my spill.
Nowadays I probably would ask why he couldn't have looked out for me a little closer and keep me from having the accident in the first place, but I was a little less cynical at 10 than I am today. My mother said what she did, and it triggered a new line of thought for me.
Suddenly God wasn't just something we talked about in church. He was real, and he mattered. It was nothing meaningful or life-changing, but the first ray of light from a deeper reality than I knew had broken through, and my spirit for the first time in my life began to stir.
It would be another eight years before the light would be bright enough that I would awake.
Copyright © 2007 by David Learn