This weekend I had the privilege of riding in a cycling event called the MS 150. Every year hundreds, if not a thousand or so cyclists make their way to a small town in southwest Missouri to complete a 150 mile bike ride. This is done to bring attention and raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.
This was my third year riding in this event. I always seem to walk away from it with a great sense of accomplishment. It is also quite humbling to be cheered on at the start line by people who live daily with MS. This year, a woman with MS said to us, “When you get towards the last few miles and your legs are burning, just remember me saying Thank You. Just remember that you are riding for many of us who cannot.” Then, at the finish line, the same man every year, bound to his wheelchair, holds his hand out with a medal dangling from it. As one reaches for his or her medal, the man gently says “thank you”. It is quite humbling and I hope to ride in future 150’s.
This year though had even more of an impact on me, but for a different reason. This is the first year that the ride took us back to Joplin, MO after the deadly tornado which claimed the lives of so many in May 2011. Last year, the ride had to be rerouted and completely taken out of the Joplin area due to the devastation of the storm. I had been there about a week or so after the tornado struck, and was silenced by what I had seen. Cars with windshields blown out laying on top of each other, buildings that looked like they exploded by the force of a bomb, houses upon houses crumbled up like sticks, and trees stripped completely down to the bark. It was shocking. Just shocking. The city I live in is close to Joplin and we are so lucky that the storm did not rumble its way towards us.
Although my work has taken me back to Joplin a few times, I usually do not drive through the area where the destruction took place. This year, the MS committee planned the route specifically to take us through some of the path of the tornado. Before I entered this area, my legs were screaming, my mind was off in some other place, there was pain tucked right in between my shoulders, and I was ready to be done. I had been in the saddle for about seven hours, and my own “saddle” was telling me it was time to get off.
However, this changed when I entered the area where that beast of a storm stole normalcy from the lives of so many. The few trees that survived were mangled. Their bare branches looked like hands reaching towards the heavens in desperation. Others bent over, all leaning to one side; yet, fresh green leaves bushed out from whatever spot they could find.
As I got closer to the eerily flattened area where houses once stood, I thought about the families and children who once lived there. I imagined kickball being played in the streets, children swinging from swing sets, families walking their pet dogs or washing their cars. All of this wiped clean. Sure, there were new houses being built and definitely the vision of new growth could be seen, but I just kept thinking about how much destruction took place on those grounds. The names of streets had been painted on the roads. The ground was completely stripped of grass. There were partially crumbled buildings still being torn down. It just went on and on.
As I drew nearer to the “end” of the destruction zone, I became overwhelmed with emotion. I thought about the mothers who lost their babies, the babies who lost their daddies and mommies, and all the others who never woke again on this Earth to see the sun rise. All I could think was “so much destruction, so much despair.”
But there in that moment on my bike with nothing but my own thoughts, I realized, or at least was reminded, that the Lord is not a god of destruction. He is not a god of devastation. He is not a god of despair. He is the God of regrowth, rebirth, restoration, and life. He lifts up our heads. He carries us through the storms. He gives us life.
The next morning as 800 or cyclists gathered around to start day two of the cycling event, small Joplin flags were handed out to each of us. We placed them in our helmets, on our bikes, or held them in our hands as we rode through part of what was named “Memorial Miles”. With just the sound of wind, the breathing of fellow riders, and the hissing-like noises from spinning our wheels, we rode in silence in honor of those killed by the Joplin tornado and in honor of the courage it has taken for the city to rebuild.
This year the road to Joplin became more than just a cycling event that I love to participate in. Yes, it was done in an effort to support those struggling with Multiple Sclerosis. However, I left the event with Joplin on my mind. This weekend turned into a reminder of the blessing of health, of love, of family, of home, and of our incredible Heavenly Father who restores, renews, and leads us to Life.