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FIRST-PERSON: Dispatch from the cornfields of Iowa

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–This year was my third time to do a complete RAGBRAI (the Des Moines “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), the first time with my sons. This year, it ran 444 miles from Sergeant Bluff to Muscatine. More than 10,000 bicycle riders took part.

As slow as I go, I had a lot of time to reflect on surroundings and developments. I offer 10, as I write this approximately 250 miles into the journey:
1. People who wonder “where we’ll put all those people” if the U.S. continues to grow should visit western Iowa. It’s miles and miles of lovely farm country with very few people. Last week, I got an e-mail from a fellow wondering if I was still keen on the procreation mandate in Genesis 1:28 now that the U.S. had reached a population of 300 million. I said I certainly was, and that even if that number doubled, we Americans could all huddle on Nantucket Island — or, I might add, on an Iowa farm. (By the way, Iowa farmland really does look like Grant Wood’s “Stone City” painting. Awesome!)

2. Wind is a huge factor along the route. We almost died during one 88-mile stretch because we had to fight a brisk headwind much of the day. Early yesterday morning, we were ecstatic for the first 10 miles since we had a firm tailwind. So it is in living either with or against the Holy Spirit — a torment or a joy, depending upon one’s cooperation with the Spirit of God.

3. The body of Christ is lovely, from the SBC pastor and wife who let me into their church for a 2-hour conference call (thanks to Richard Scirankos of Ida Grove’s Heartland Baptist Chapel), to the Methodist layman giving me a quiet space to write a column, to the GARB folks handing out free watermelon and tracts on the roadside, to the wholesome looking youth wearing an Evangel College T-shirt in a sea of other, less-edifying tees.

4. God’s sovereign timing is uncanny. Needing to draft an article and then fax it in, I prayed before heading out one morning that God would provide a quiet place to write. Just as I arrived at Wichita (Iowa, not Kansas), the above-mentioned Methodist saint was just closing the door of a little, white-frame church, which had shut down a few months back. He had been doing some custodial work and was happy to oblige when I asked for an hour or so in the building. He asked me to just close the door after myself. So there I was, alone in this spiritually pleasant auditorium. When I finished, I peddled on to the next town, where a kind grocer faxed my column to an editor. But I soon discovered that my pencil-written manuscript hadn’t faxed well. Never mind that. Just as I exited the grocery, our support van drove by, and I was able to jump on, having developed issues with a new bike seat. When the van stopped at the next town, I found myself at the doorstep of the Iowa Telecom trailer with free email terminals. I quickly keyed in the piece and sent it off, just in the nick of the time.

5. God is stunningly powerful. If you doubt this, ride out a 3-inch downpour with close lightning strikes and 40-mile-hour winds while you’re balled up in a tortured pop tent. (Our midnight experience in Waukee.) Psalm 29!

6. A lot of people are straining toward disappointments. I’m sure Boyer, Iowa, is a wonderful place, but thousands of riders were talking about the letdown. After negotiating 24 miles of brutal hills and headwinds, we were all looking forward to our first stop of the day in Boyer. We were visualizing the refreshment, diversions and throngs of well-wishers awaiting us. But when we got there, we found only a wide spot in the road with a couple of food vendors. So instead of collapsing in relief on the grass with Gatorade running down our chins, most of us peddled on grimly. So it is with people who set their hopes on one secular gratification after another, always peddling to the next Boyer, hoping that this will finally be the one to soothe their spirits.

7. Why do guys think that public lewdness is so cool, and why do their women put up with it? This is not the rule at RAGBRAI, but there are generous doses of the tawdry on team shirts and in conversation. I wish I could give you some examples (and some are right clever), but they’re unprintable. Do the men who sport these slogans really think they’re the means to a better life? And are the women who indulge them really that desperate for male friendship?

8. Anyone with indoor plumbing is a rich man. After a week of navigating sauna-like porta-potties, cornfield confidentials and jerry-rigged showers, I realize once again that an ordinary bathroom is the cradle of civilization.

9. Who could imagine that pork-chops, strawberry smoothies, breakfast burritos, homemade vanilla ice cream, turkey legs and pasta could all come from the soil? Well … God.

10. Though I’m not a big MP3 guy, I thank God for the technology that lets me listen to books on tape as I ride hour after hour across the countryside. Ann Coulter’s “Godless” and “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have been my engaging companions.

It’s 56 more miles to Marengo today, and I’ve got to hit it. I hear that Lance Armstrong is coming through Sully with his posse. If I keep my head down, maybe I won’t be blown away by their prop-wash as I putter down the road.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger