Big Nick gulped the last of his coffee. “Saddle up, folks,” he called out, his baritone voice resounding through the diner.
We gathered the jackets, gloves and helmets that lay strewn across our booths and tables. Having paid for our order and tipped our waitress, we trooped out to the parking lot, where 10 motorcycles were neatly arrayed.
Before mounting our bikes, we discussed our route. “I’ll ride sweep,” Big Nick offered. I looked up and smiled at this gentle giant in a Harley-Davidson jacket.
As the “sweep,” Big Nick rode at the rear of our formation, making sure that less experienced motorcyclists like me weren’t left behind. If a rider lagged or pulled over, Big Nick did the same, offering mechanical and moral support.
We started our bikes and filed onto the highway, the autumn sunshine sparkling on our chrome exhaust pipes.
Glancing in my mirror, I could see Big Nick astride his touring bike, throttling and shifting with a practiced grace. His keen eyes scanned the road, watching our group and gauging the traffic.
I silently thanked God for the beauty of the day and for the company of friends — particularly Big Nick.
Riding sweep is a tricky task. “The sweep position is the most difficult position to execute properly,” Jay Green notes on the motorcycling blog Road Captain USA. “The sweep must anticipate what is going to happen before everyone else (does). He will sometimes have to put himself in harm’s way to protect the group.”
Although he isn’t necessarily wearing a Harley-Davidson jacket, the Lord rides sweep in our own lives. “You hem me in, behind and before,” the psalmist marvels. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:5, 6).
God leads us, but he also follows us, lest we lose heart. Living out our call as Christians can at times feel overwhelming. The battle to subdue the flesh and to conform ourselves to Christ leaves us weary; the distance between our present location and our spiritual destination daunts us. Seeing others far advanced in holiness can accentuate the gap and discourage us.
Knowing that the Lord doesn’t abandon us in such moments gives us the strength to persist. As a novice rider, I often struggled to keep up with my group, afraid I’d lose control of my bike if I opened the throttle. I would sigh as the other riders drifted away from me; many times I felt like admitting defeat and returning to my garage. Big Nick stayed with me, reassuring me that I could finish the trip.
In the same way, the Lord constantly seeks those who fall behind on the road of life — the brokenhearted, the outcast, the inexperienced and the unaccomplished. The one lost sheep matters just as much to him as the 99 who can maintain speed and follow directions (Matthew 18:10-14, Luke 15:1-7).
On both earthly and spiritual roads, riding sweep entails sacrifice. With a powerful bike and thousands of miles clocked, Big Nick could easily have led our group, or taken his own road at his preferred pace. Instead, he chose to make himself last in line and first to assist — just as Christ did by “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness … and (becoming) obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7, 8).
And whether we straddle a Harley, drive a minivan or take the bus, we’re all called to ride sweep. In his first general audience, Pope Francis stressed the need to “step outside, to search for the lost sheep together with (Christ), the one furthest away … to step outside towards others, to draw close to them so we can bring the light and joy of our faith.”
Like Big Nick, the Lord is right behind us for every mile of the journey.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.