What Kind of Harley-Davidson Would Jesus Ride?

Five years ago my buddy, Duane Shrontz, and I rendezvoused at the Waukesha County Fairgrounds, 15 miles west of Milwaukee, for the 95th anniversary celebration of Harley-Davidson motorcycles (see “Gone to Hog Heaven,” Perspectives, October 1998). He rode his new Dyna-Wideglide straight through from Salt Lake City, Utah, not even stopping for the thunderstorm that tossed him about in its cross-winds on the eastern slopes of South Dakota. But that was Duane. Combine his love of motorcycles with his stubborn determination, and you had a rider who only pulled over for typhoons or stranded motorists.

In his black leather jacket, matching pants, and cowboy boots, you would never guess that Duane was a self-made multimillionaire, especially when he put on his black beret with an eagle crest pinned to the front. On second thought, maybe the beret gave something away, at least a hint of his European experience as the ski instructor and business partner who, together with Olympic Gold Medalist Jean-Claude Killy, designed innovative downhill equipment for the continental market from his French home away from home.

We pitched our tents together in the wet grass–it rained a lot in Milwaukee that month–and we rode together from event to event throughout the week, visiting and revisiting factory tours, the H.O.G. (Harley Owner’s Group) 25th anniversary rally, as well as the official Harley-Davidson party to toast the end of the week. Duane and his wife Jody were members of my former church in Salt Lake City, and we talked a lot that week about the more recent work of Christ in our lives, both the ups and the downs, the struggles with our children, the phases of our marriages, and our questions about what the future might hold for middle-age guys like us.

Before leaving Milwaukee, we agreed that we were going to meet again at the 100th anniversary scheduled for August 2003, only this time our wives were coming along (maybe we could relent and get hotel rooms for them), and the four of us would have a private celebration all our own. As I write this, the rally is only three weeks away, but I won’t be attending after all. I’m still cruising on the same custom chopper, although I’ve replaced the old girder front-end with an extended springer I salvaged from a swap meet for $70, but there won’t be a rendezvous with my two friends. They were both killed last fall when their private plane exploded one dark night on an Arizona mountainside. Instead of riding to Milwaukee, I’ve made plans to spend my money on an Iowa pheasant hunt with my new bird dog, Sadie, while remembering my brother and sister, Duane and Jody.

Duane was one of the more devout followers of Jesus Christ I’ve ever known. His grandfather was an orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity by way of an old-fashioned, sawdust trail, tent revival hosted by a tiny, fundamentalist church in rural Michigan. Grandfather Shrontz lovingly, but sternly, taught his son and then his grandson to love and to obey their Messiah, Jesus, and he did it in part through lengthy family devotions that included readings, expositions and searching questions covering the whole of the Old and New Testaments, as if their dinner table were a beth ha-midrash (Jewish house of study) and the family home a rabbinical school. As the patriarch leading a household of converted Jews, he felt a special responsibility to ensure that every member clearly understood how and why Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of their nation’s religious hopes–a mantle that Duane tried to carry for his own family, as well. (He once sheepishly confided how “cool” he thought the motorcycle helmets were that looked like the helmets worn by the German army in World War II. But, he added, “I’d be ashamed to wear one after all the things they did to my people”). His golden years of unimagined business success coincided with a dark age of spiritual rebellion. Duane emerged a wealthy but broken-hearted man, a millionaire extricating himself from the rubble of a shattered marriage, with more money than he could spend in two lifetimes, finally ready humbly to return to Jesus.

From that moment, Duane never looked back. We rarely got together without a significant portion of the conversation turning to the most recent indications of Christ’s mercy in our lives; we seldom if ever parted without Duane insisting that we pray together before going our separate ways. Jody was cut from exactly the same bolt of cloth, and for each of them following Christ meant using their blessing of wealth to generously bless the lives of those around them. They were major donors to a small, fledgling Christian seminary in Salt Lake City (where I also used to teach) seeking to raise up and retain local pastors for the believing community in Utah. For a number of years, Duane and Jody were members of the small Bible study group that met in our home every Thursday night. One winter day the ladies of our group met at a local restaurant to pull off a surprise early morning birthday party for a friend. As they sipped their coffee in the red Naugahyde booth, the conversation came around to prayer requests whereupon my wife talked, somewhat tearfully, about the surprisingly large sum we had just discovered we owed for back taxes, due to the church treasurer’s error in our withholdings. After prayer, while the women filed out and slid into their waiting cars, Jody hung back and put a slip of paper into Terry’s hand. “I don’t want to hear a word about it,” she said, giving my wife a hug. Terry looked at a check made out for the full amount.

Duane and I left Milwaukee together riding north and then east along the back roads of Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. Our last night on the road was spent in a Manistique hotel where, of course, Duane insisted on paying for everything. As we ate dinner in a local restaurant, he despondently shared his fears for his children. “I’m afraid my wealth will ruin their lives,” he said. “As hard as I’ve tried to prevent it, to combat any sense of entitlement, I’m scared to death when I think of what my money will do to them after I’m gone. I often wish I’d never made it.” We prayed for all our children that night.

Last January Duane and Jody were flying from California to their home in Santa Fe. Having learned that a dear friend was dying from cancer, they made a last minute alteration in their flight plan. Landing at Scottsdale in the dead of night, they spent several hours in the airport lobby praying with their friend’s wife, weeping, consoling, believing that their prayers could effect a noteworthy difference in the shape of God’s world. Finally, they took off into the ink-black sky (newspaper reports indicated it was an especially dark night) and, within moments, their explosion illuminated the Arizona desert with bright, orange flame. Only God knows what happened.

I wonder if there are Harley-Davidsons in heaven? If there are, what model do you think Jesus rides? Whatever it might be, I’m sure there are no helmets, just the Spirit’s comforting breath wafting through your hair as you fly effortlessly down endless, twisting ribbons of unimpeded highway, winding roads lined close by ancient giants from old-growth forests, standing at attention, reaching to the stars, shimmering verdant, lush, green. Duane and Jody will be racing to the front of the pack, gunning their emission-free engine (of course!), snuggling the V-twin as closely as possible alongside Jesus as he leads The Heavenly Host on one more ride across the new heaven and the new earth. If Duane can figure out a way to get close enough “to lean his head against Jesus’ breast” (see John 21:20) while simultaneously leaning into the S-curve nebulae at 80 mph, he’ll be the one to do it.

No. I take that back. Duane would rather surrender his controls so as to hunker down in the Lord’s passenger seat, arms wrapped tightly around the Savior, savoring every eternal instant of what it means to be finally, wholly, completely “united with Christ,” energized by the Power enabling him to finally . . . fi
nally
“grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, the love that surpasses all understanding” (Ephesians 3:18-19). Grabbing that gold ring was Duane’s life goal, and now his dream in life is heaven’s reality.

Terry and I have shed our tears, looked at heaven and mumbled our anguished “Why?”. But I know what Duane would say:

O LORD, you are my God;

I will exalt you and praise your name,

for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvelous things,

things planned long ago. (Isaiah 25:1)

Keep that seat warm for me, buddy. Remember. The day is coming, perhaps sooner than I imagine, when you’re going to have to share it with me.

David Crump is professor of Religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.