This month’s guest writer is NazToo’s hardest-working admin, Melissa Smith Wass. She has earned a BA in English, a BS in Philosophy/Theology (Indiana Wesleyan), an MATS in Christian Thought and History (NTS), and an MDiv (United). She starts a doctoral program in Theology at the University of Dayton in August. This November she and her husband Jeff will celebrate 27 years of marriage. They have five children, two grandchildren, two dogs, a cat, and a betta fish named St. Nicholas. She loves the smell of patchouli and dabbles in herbal medicine enough that her children call her a hippie witch. And she still thinks Simon LeBon is one of the sexiest men alive (#DuranDuran4ever).
(June 30, 2017) This morning over coffee, my oldest daughter Ruthanne looked at my husband Jeff and said, “Guess what tomorrow is?” with barely contained excitement. And, folks, the answer is not Saturday or the holiday weekend or anything other than “. . . the start of the Tour de France.”
See, we’re not a normal white American middle class family. We’re professional cycling fans. Today, the decorations will go up, not for the 4th of July; no, it will be yellow, white, green, and polka dot buntings for le Tour. Our red, white, and blue comes in solid stripes and looks a lot more like the French flag than the American one. We have cheese and homemade baguettes (not so easy when they have to be gluten free!) and we have a subscription to an all-access cycling web service so we don’t miss a single minute.
Now, I know, you have to wonder what this has to do being a Nazarene, too. That is, if you kept reading past the part where I wrote “the Tour de France.” Well, my passion for professional cycling is an awful lot like my passion for the Church of the Nazarene. Let me try to explain.
In 2006, the first year that Lance Armstrong was not at the Tour, the night before the race began, all the major contenders were dismissed by the governing body of cycling for suspected doping. Doping has always been a problem in cycling, ever since the Tour started in 1903. It’s like the dirty little secret that every fan wants to ignore. But it has hurt and scarred our sport. In 1967, British rider Tommy Simpson died of drug related causes while racing up Mont Ventoux. He fell off his bicycle and begged spectators to help him get back on. Remounting his bike, he cycled another 400 meters up the mountain until he became unconscious. His heart had basically exploded and doctors would later say that he was a dead man when he got back on his bike.
I guess I feel the same way sometimes about being in the Church of the Nazarene. Since 1908, we’ve ordained women. We’ve always ordained women. And, we’ve always let them serve wherever men didn’t want to. When my husband left ministry and the Nazarene church, he tried to convince me to do the same. He said, “Being a woman in ministry in the Church of the Nazarene is martyrdom and I don’t want to see you martyred.” But still I stay. I get back on my bike, I continue my education, I work to be a professor if I can’t be a pastor, and I know that, in some ways, I’m a dead man on a bike climbing a mountain.
This year, 2017, is an important year for the Church of the Nazarene and the Tour de France. In the CotN, we elected our second female General Superintendent in Rev. Dr. Carla Sunberg. A gifted and capable woman, Dr. Sunberg is a brilliant addition to the highest level of leadership in our denomination. With her years of experience and her educational background, in no way can Dr. Sunberg be mistaken as a token. 2017 is also the year that Pasadena Church of the Nazarene (one of the largest Nazarene churches in the United States) selected Rev. Tara Beth Leach as Senior Pastor. Again, this is not a token appointment, but a recognition of the hard work and God given gifts in a dedicated female pastor. But these two giant bright spots aren’t without a shadow. In her acceptance speech, Dr. Sunberg stated that her husband encouraged her into ministry when he told her that if she had been a boy, she would have been the minister in her family, like her father before her. At PasNaz, Rev. Leach was recalled from service to a sister denomination to pastor and faced a small campaign against her leadership before she ever arrived in California. She was ordained nearly simultaneously with the acceptance of her call to Pasadena because she had been employed in ministry outside the Church of the Nazarene, something many Nazarene women find they must do if they are going to be able to obtain needed pastoral experience. And this is like the Tour de France, friends, in that this year marks the return of the Tour to Germany, a country which refused to even show cycling on television in the years after the 2006 doping scandal, which saw their national champion, Jan Ullrich, tossed out of the race. This year the start is in Düsseldorf, Germany and one of the major contenders is Marcel Kittel, a 29 year old German who is one of the fastest cyclist in the world. Kittle explained how important this year’s race is to him and lamented that his parents weren’t able to watch his first Tour stage win in 2013, where he won a total of four stages and held the overall top spot for a couple days.
One last story to leave you with from the most epic cycling race in the world that begins today. For years now, the French have not had a serious contender for the overall champion in their national race. But what they have had are cyclists who animate the race, who strike out and win a stage or two, or race out in front of the group all day long–only to be caught in the final stretch when everyone is hoping he can hold on. And the most proficient of these French riders is Thomas Voeckler. He has held the overall lead, but never won it. He has won a stage near his hometown, on Bastille Day (the French 4th of July) in the national championship jersey. He has wrecked, climbed back on his bike, and finished the stage bleeding, only to miss the time cut-off and have to go home. And this is his final year, his final Tour. He retires after this race. Thomas Voeckler will attack on Bastille Day, July 14th. He will do everything in his power to win the stage. And the French…well…everyone, really, knows that it will be nearly impossible odds for this aging rider to once again win a stage. But you know what? The French don’t care. They want him to try and they even have a phrase for it: The beautiful defeat.
Even if Thomas Voeckler rides all day alone and is passed by every single rider in the race in the last kilometer, the French will celebrate his beautiful defeat. They will say that he made a gorgeous loss. As just a regular old woman in the Church of the Nazarene, I hope to do the same. I hope I can make a beautiful defeat and lose gloriously. And I hope you’re with me.