Secrets of the Christian Life: How to Live GPS Free

It is April, 2012. My wife and I are suffering from a severe case of EWFS (Extended-Winter Fatigue Syndrome). Now, some of you reading this likely think of April as early spring, but where we live on the Canadian prairies, April is the sixth (and if we’re lucky, final) month of winter. We decide that we must escape, so we board a flight to Arizona.

Upon arrival, we head to the car rental company. Naturally, the very helpful attendant offers us a multitude of add-ons. The thing is, we’re pretty frugal (cheap?), generally unwilling to spend money on anything we don’t need.

“Would you like the extra insurance?”

“No, we’re good.”

“I see you requested an economy car. How about an upgrade?”

“No thanks.”

“We have a Mustang convertible . . . ”

“NO!” (My wife, to me.)

“Do you need an engine in your car?”

“No, we’ll push it.”

“How about a GPS unit?”

Pause. We exchange glances, each of us silently recalling our most recent trip, where we attempted to navigate another unfamiliar landscape, sans tecno-gadget. My wife served as navigator, armed only with a map. (Made of paper!) It was probably the closest we have ever come to a divorce.

“Um . . .  how much?” I enquire.

“Doesn’t matter,” my wife interjects tersely.

Her tone cements my decision. “Yes! GPS!”

Having never been to Arizona, the little unit is put to work immediately. At first it is all fun and games. My wife digs into the instructions and we get it set up, in the process trying out a few basic functions. We are amused by the machine’s attempt at a human sounding voice. We name her Jane. We struggle to input our destination. We laugh, we cry. Within an hour we are ready to commence our 12 minute drive to the hotel.

We are on the freeway, and Jane delivers her first set of directions. What I notice immediately is that I do not like her tone. When I mention this, my wife suggests that it might simply be that I do not like being told what to do. I laugh. Ha, ha! Then, in an offhand way, I remark that there is something familiar to me about this demanding female voice. Now it is my spouse’s turn to laugh. Ha, ha! What fun we are having!

The frivolity is interrupted by an urgent command. “Merge right in 100 yards.”

As my heart rate rises, I point out (to the inanimate object) that I am in the far left lane, and that there is considerable traffic, and that—

“Merge right in 50 yards.” The voice is calm, but insistent.

For some reason, I feel compelled to obey. I shoulder check. Only 15 vehicles between me and my objective. “I can do this,” I tell myself.

“What!” My wife has clearly been eavesdropping. “No!”

Then the GPS. “Merge right.” Is it just me, or is there a little bit of an edge to her voice now?

“Do. Not.” My wife. Definitely some edge.

I hesitate. I am sweating profusely.

“Merge right immediately.” It sounds like a threat. But it would take a miracle to execute a successful merge now. Naturally, I consider it.

And then it passes; or rather I pass it; within seconds the off-ramp is a distant reflection in the rearview mirror. My wife breathes out her relief at the same moment that I feel a wave of shame at my failure. I endeavour to speak, to somehow justify this most recent navigational debacle, and I am immediately surprised by the words that I hear as I open my mouth.

“Recalculating.” Jane has spoken for me. She is in charge now. She wants us to know that even though I have failed, she is intelligent enough that, given a few moments to think, she will come up with a foolproof plan (I don’t like the insinuation) to save the day. Before I can object, she says, “In 100 yards, make a U-turn.”

Okay. A solution. This is good. I am surprised that there is a place to execute such a maneuver on an Arizona interstate, but I am relieved. I begin to look for a sign for the U-turn zone.

“Make a U-turn in 50 yards.”

I slow the vehicle. Other people behind me in the fast lane seem perturbed, but I can only assume that it is because they do not have a GPS. Their blaring horns make it difficult to concentrate, as does my wife’s “advice”. Perhaps this is why I cannot not see the sign.

“Make a U-turn” says the little electronic dictator. “Now!”

I question whether Arizona law would accommodate high speed U-turns across medians on eight-lane highways, but then recall that they do allow people to carry guns around here, so . . .  

My thoughts are interrupted. “Recalculating.” Her voice does not indicate anger. Just disappointment. Grave disappointment.

This continued for most of the rest of the trip. After we’d been there four or five days, we pretty much knew our way around, and were more than happy to unplug the little tyrant. Truth be told, had we still needed directions I think we would have preferred to take our chances with a gigantic paper map again.

I think I used to view God as if He was just some big GPS in the sky. I would tell Him where I wanted to go (prayer), and then it was His job to tell me how to get there. Eventually, I matured and realized that my view of prayer was a little skewed (Jesus and that whole your-will-be-done thing!). So then He got the added privilege (how generous of me!) of being the one to decide where I was to go. Of course I had some conditions: He would need to paint a clear picture of the destination, give detailed directions every step of the way, and ensure a prompt arrival at a previously agreed-upon date and time.

Shock of shocks, on more than one occasion I found myself recalculating when He seemingly failed to deliver. After too many years of wrestling with anger, frustration and disappointment, I eventually figured out what God knew all along: I’m better off without a GPS. That’s why He isn’t one, and doesn’t give us one.

In the Bible the story is told of a great journey that has been taking place for millennia, and that will continue for who knows how long (forever?). Moreover, you and I are invited to join in. The story is as much about what is happening right now as it is about what will eventually happen one day—the final destination. There are clear guidelines about the ultimate purpose, as well as what is expected of those who accept the invitation to participate (rules of the road, if you will). But this odyssey is so vast, its scope so far-reaching, that there is ample room for diverse paths along the route. In fact, the members of this expedition each have their unique role to play, having been equipped in advance for the journey (Ephesians 2:10).

This is not to say that we are left to trek alone. Beyond the direction the story itself provides, and the legacy of those who traveled before us, there is Jesus. He came here and joined the journey in person to be the Way. Not to simply to tell us the way, or even show us the way, but to embody the Way. To be known. This so that we might be reconnected to our Creator, and be made whole. And beyond that, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Ah, some might think. The Holy Spirit; finally, the GPS!

I don’t think so. For the Holy Spirit does not come along and perch Himself on the dashboard of our life in order to say, “Merge right! Merge right now!” That sounds more like an autocrat than an advocate.

You and I, miraculously, were made in the very image of God, intended to participate fully in the grand adventure He designed. We were tragically maimed by the fall and lost our way, forced by our own folly to limp along in a mess of our own making. But now, through Christ, we are being restored day by day with the help of the ever-present Holy Spirit. We don’t need someone to say, “Turn left here. Go right there.” We were made for this journey, fully equipped as ones uniquely crafted to flourish as we explore the width and breadth of the landscape God laid before us. If we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Way, we’ll be just fine. Constantly asking, “What now? What now?” just shows a lack of faith in the work He has already accomplished, and continues to accomplish, in us.

These past six months have served as an excellent reminder of all of this for me. For over thirty years, my life was reasonably predictable, at least career wise. Teaching, once you are established, is a fairly secure profession. Every day for thirty-one years, I generally knew when to get up in the morning, where I would go to work and, for the most part, what I would do when I got there (although my students did their best to keep me on my toes). As each school year ended, I had a pretty good idea of where the next one would begin, and what my life would look like once there.

But since retirement, I have embarked on a very new adventure. I’m calling myself a writer now. (It still sounds weird when I say it aloud.) I have a new boss (me), and frankly, the guy seems to have very little clue as to what he’s doing!  It’s all new territory; I figure out each step as I go (sometimes I want God to tell me where to turn, but He doesn’t), and the end-game is very unclear (no ETA on arrival at destination . . .  in fact, I’m far from sure of what the destination is).

But here’s the thing: I’m having a blast! I’m not saying that I haven’t had my moments, but for the most part, the uncertainty of it all has been part of the fun. I’m learning, I’m growing, and I’m doing something that I’ve long wanted to do. And I think what God has been showing me in all of this is that He is the One who has brought me this far on the journey, that he’s set me up for success, and that He’ll be with me every step of the way. What more could I ask for?

Definitely not a GPS.

What Freedom Looks Like

My wife and I were on vacation at a resort in Hawaii. Picture a perfect day: hot and sunny, a bright blue sky, palm leaves stirred by a warm, sweet breeze off the ocean. We strolled across the immaculately manicured lawn of the resort; lush and clipped like a golf green. Happy people could be found here and there. Some were lounging by the pool, others played catch, chatted or, like us, sauntered about soaking it all in. Paradise.

Perhaps twenty-five meters ahead of us, a father was dressing his toddler after some fun in the pool. Yet another scene of bliss and tranquility.

Then it happened.

The little fella broke free. Buck naked, he squealed joyfully and set out at a sprint—or at least a toddler’s version of it: elbows flexed, fists up around his ears, round belly proudly leading the way. His little legs pumped vigorously, monkey-style, chubby feet flapping down one after the other on the soft green grass, scampering along with all the grace and finesse of a penguin.

I’m not sure how old he was. (How old are children when they first learn to run?) But toddler though he was, he knew a few things. First of all, he knew that this was temporary. His dad would chase after him (hence the squeals) and he would ultimately be caught (just as much fun as being chased). But even though capture was inevitable, he also knew he had to make a run for it; this because he remembered something that his father had likely long since forgotten: he was born naked! Clothes, to him, were a ridiculous nuisance. A symbol of bondage, even. This, frolicking au naturel under the warm summer sun, was sweet, sweet freedom.

As this amusing little pantomime played out in front of us, the Newsboys song “I am Free” immediately popped into my head. Ever since then, when I think of the kind of freedom that Jesus came to bring, this is the little 10 second video (complete with soundtrack) that plays in my mind. “I am free to run, I am free to dance, I am free to live for you. I am free!”

Seeing my dog run off-leash creates a similar picture for me. In last week’s post, I recounted a typical trip to the dog park. (If you missed it, just click here: http://wp.me/p863BT-2A) Last week I suggested that Casey on the loose was evocative of worship. Unrestrained, she does what she was born to do with joy and abandon, just like the wee little nudist. But it is important to note that freedom is the catalyst; given the chance, she becomes fully alive, unable to do anything but what she was made to do. This in turn brings glory to God.

The same is true for me. I worship most fully when I remember my freedom. It might be in a moment when I am feeling especially free, such as when I go for a walk on a beautiful day, or when I enjoy a drive alone through the countryside (at precisely the speed limit) listening to my favourite music. Or it may be when I recall some of the things that used to hold me captive, and those times in my life where God intervened, usually in the midst of pain, to emancipate me. I see who and what I was, and how I am now, by comparison, like that little boy dashing across the grass, a picture of joy.  

Of course, the tiny tot’s dad did eventually catch up with him. It was only a matter of seconds, really. 238 frantic steps for the little one, and two easy strides for his laughing father, who scooped him up and bundled him into his clothing. Life will do that to us, and so we seize these joyful moments when they present themselves, knowing all too well that this fallen world so frequently seeks to constrain us.

My prayer for that child, and for the child in each of us, is that he never forgets. That he remembers what freedom feels like and always seeks it, never losing hope, knowing that there is One who offers it without reservation. May he recognize and fully enjoy the reminders of it that are all around him, and may he faithfully endure those painful moments that will be needed to loosen the shackles that will inevitably be placed upon him. And finally, may he (and we) rejoice in the certain hope of a future where the sun shines warm, the grass grows soft and green, and (dare I suggest it?) clothing will be entirely optional.

 

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

— John 8:36

What My Dog Has Taught Me About Life and God (#1)

My dog inspires me (please do not tell her this, as she’s a little cocky as it is). She actually elicits a variety of reactions: amusement, irritation, frustration, laughter, anger and heart-melting affection. But inspiration is the one we’ll talk about today.

Casey is a Brittany, a medium-sized dog originally bred for bird hunting. As such, she possesses many of the characteristics one might expect in a bird dog: athleticism, high energy, strong sniffing instinct, alertness, enthusiasm, intelligence. She also exhibits a number of traits that seem to be in no way related to her calling, such as stubbornness, moments of mindless mania and excessive cuteness. And lots of shedding.

I took Casey to the off-leash dog park the other day. This is her favourite place on the planet. Let me describe for you what it looks like every single time we go there. First comes the whining in the car. Once we get about halfway to the dog park, she knows exactly where we’re going, and begins to articulate her feelings through a series of mournful wails and barks. Roughly translated into English, she says, “Hey! We’re going to the dog park! Right? I love the dog park! That’s where we’re going, right? To the dog park? Can we please go to the dog park? I love it there! Are we there yet? You’re not going somewhere else, are you? Cuz I love the dog park! Are we there yet? We’re not there yet! It’s coming up—do you remember the way? Straight ahead, and it’s on the right; I can smell it! Don’t turn left! I LOVE the dog park! There are dogs there! And a park! Dog park dog park dog park!” (etc.)

Upon arrival we wrestle. Imagine a kite in a windstorm. Imagine that the kite is a dog and the string is a leash and that the windstorm begins in the back of my parked car and continues until such time as I manage to land her inside the park’s gate.

Our dog park has a cleverly engineered dual gate system that allows one to unleash one’s animal inside the first gate, which is itself fully enclosed by a fence. This is brilliant, and effectively protects the dog park’s innocent patrons from Casey’s inevitable insanity upon arrival. I unclip her lead and she bolts for the next gate, nose pressed to the ground, and throws herself at it paws-first. The gate miraculously holds, and I take a moment to recompose myself before initiating the next phase: the launch.

I take a few moments to scan the area; ideally it is deserted. This ensures that my dog will not bowl over any children, jump up on any old people, or blindly run over any smaller dogs. (Yes, these things have all happened. I beg that you do not judge me. I am a good dog owner. But 5 years in with this particular dog—who has calmed down, mind you—and I remain helpless in the face of her we’re-finally-here-I-get-to-run-now insanity.) Once a safe perimeter has been established, I unhook the gate. (It is not necessary that I actually open it; her head does that.)

She shoots out of that chain link enclosure like a torpedo from  submarine. Her initial trajectory takes her about 100 metres straight into the park, before slowing slightly, looping around, and accelerating back towards her original launchpoint. Once there she sprints from exciting object (another dog, a human, a bush to sniff, etc.) to exciting object, rarely making any significant contact—strictly sniff and run. And then she’s off, racing away again at maximum speed in whatever direction compels her. In spite of my best efforts, there is usually someone around to witness all of this, and they inevitably react, depending on their temperament, with some version of “Wow!” By way of response, I typically shrug, smile and quote Bruce Springsteen. “She was born to run.”

The Boss is right (of course), and she demonstrates this fact for the rest of our time at the park. She runs and runs (and sniffs) and runs and runs (and sniffs; she was also born to sniff, but I doubt that Springsteen will write a song about that) and runs. She runs through the long grass especially, because that’s where she finds birds to flush in the summer. It’s winter now, and there are very few birds, but just the possibility is enough.

This is where Casey inspires me. I walk, and she runs, and watching her I see pure joy. She’s a pretty happy dog most of the time, but here, in her element, she reaches a whole other level of bliss. I am reminded of the words attributed to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”*

Can a dog worship God? In Isaiah 55, the mountains and hills burst into song, and the trees of the field clap their hands. As He enters Jerusalem, Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if He silenced His disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) There is clearly some metaphor in play with these examples, but I think also something more than that; scripture taken as a whole (including Romans 1 and Psalms 19 & 148) suggests that all of creation attests to the glory of God. A mountain, a sunset, a starry night sky—all of these, just by virtue of their magnificence, honour their creator. A dog, then, doing what it was meant to do with joyful abandon, does likewise.

Humans, made in His image, are unique amongst creation in their ability to take it to the next level. Neither a mountain nor a dog chooses to glorify God, I don’t think. They just do what they  were made to do. We alone have the capacity to look up, and say, “Hey, maybe there’s more here than meets the eye. Look at that majestic mountain, and that crazy-fast dog. Someone made that. Wow. God!” And then, to choose to worship Him; or not. Given this singular capacity—the ability to (somewhat) comprehend, and then to chose—human worship is both a precious gift (to ourselves, and remarkably, to God Himself) and a privilege. And greater is the tragedy when we neglect, or worse, eschew it.

And, so back to my ridiculous dog. I see her do what she was born to do with such unfettered joy and I am inspired to do likewise. Some of the things I was born to do are the same as the things you were born to do; those things that we have in common as human beings made in the image of God. And some of them are part of the distinct set of passions and abilities that God wove together into the unique creation that is me (I’m doing one of those things right now, writing this).

I want to be more like Casey, launching myself into everything that I am meant to be with unbridled enthusiasm, and revelling in the joy of it. And then, because I can, taking it to that next level, and choosing to acknowledge and honour the One who makes it possible. Worship.

 

 

*“Surprisingly, this line was actually written by Colin Welland as part of his script for the film Chariots of Fire, but is widely misrepresented as having been said by Eric Liddell in real life.” http://www.ericliddell.org/ericliddell/quotations

Happy New Year?

2016 has taken a lot of heat. A lot. And I get it. Bad news came in waves this past year, with events ranging from shocking to sickening to simply very sad. Brutal terrorism. Racism. Violence by law enforcement officers. Violence against law enforcement officers. Protests and riots. Olympic doping. Zika. Extreme weather: earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, record high temperatures and flooding. Airline disasters. Economic woes. The brutal war in Syria, and the tragedy of refugees that no one quite knows how to handle. Political upheaval: Brexit, a failed coup in Turkey, Trump versus Clinton, left versus right, Russia versus the US, and North Korea versus . . .  everyone. Hacking. Fake news. Creepy clowns. And of course the never-ending stream of celebrity deaths.

I’m not going to say that the horrible (even horrific) events listed above weren’t that bad (they were) but I would like to rebut 3 of the more common responses to the previous year. First, many  have gone so far as to call 2016 the worst year ever. (I mean, look at Mariah Carey’s performance on New Year’s Eve!) Others, Christians in particular, point to the year as evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. (A handbasket? Why not get an Uber? Or do they do ridesharing there? Anyway . . .  ) Finally, some have taken a more positive approach, suggesting that while 2016 was rough, we can hope that 2017 will be much better. In my opinion all 3 of these responses are ill-informed, and I would like to advocate a more rational response. In this digital age, there are a multitude of voices clamouring for our attention, and it is perhaps more important than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth.

So, let’s start with “the worst year ever”*. I think it would be fair to suggest that there may have been other years that would rival 2016 for that dubious title. For instance, there would be a number of scientists who would lobby in favour of that time when an asteroid collided with our planet, wiping out up to 75% of previously living species. That was probably a rough year. Too speculative for you? How about the year of the Great Flood? You know, that time when everyone died except for Noah and his family? Or the Black Death? You could pick one of the years during that dark time in the mid 1300s and make a pretty strong argument for that as the worst year ever.

Okay, some might argue, but those are just natural disasters. What about economic downturn and political upheaval? Well, my parents’ generation would suggest that the Great Depression and World War II would give anything that occurred in 2016 a run for its money. Man’s inhumanity to man? How about the Holocaust? The Cambodian genocide?

Which brings us to the hell in a handbasket theory. It goes something like this: The good old days are gone. This world is just getting worse and worse! If people would just (insert preferred ideology; essentially it involves some version of other people agreeing with their worldview and taking up their pet cause) then everything would improve.

One of the problems with this rather simplistic approach is the fundamental assumption that the world is getting worse. Of course, by the world, they mean people. And I’m going to suggest that people have been doing some pretty awful things for quite some time. Racism, tyranny, insurrection, corruption and greed are not new. People have been crafting creative reasons for the implementation of cruel means to impose their will upon others for millennia. Some examples would Genghis Khan, Caligula, Maximilien Robespierre, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler—all of whom did their deadly deeds long before 2016.

So what am I saying? That life just sucks; always has and always will? Nope. Simply that bad things have been happening for a long, long time. They happened in 2016, and they’ll continue to happen for as long as we’re all here. Perhaps the reason it seems like more of it happened in 2016 is that in a media saturated, digitally enhanced, on-demand world, we get to see it all up close. Not that long ago, there was a comfortable distance (both chronologically and geographically) separating us from events in Syria, or Turkey, or France. In today’s digital world, that distance is rapidly shrinking. What happens on the other side of the world pops up on our smartphones, live and in HD, almost immediately.

Here’s a second theory: more people. I remember as a kid learning that the world’s population was just under 4 billion (3.7 in 1970). Since then, it has doubled to 7.4 billion. Does it not seem reasonable that with twice as many people, there might be twice as much strife? I think that these 2 factors might also explain why there seem to be so many celebrity deaths. As a result of increased population and higher media consumption, there are simply more celebrities on the planet than ever before. In fact, it could be argued that celebrities weren’t even really a thing until the mid twentieth century. Well, those people are very old now.

So what do we do with all of this? Let me repeat what I said earlier: it is perhaps more important now than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth. And where might we look for truth? Let’s start with the Bible.  It tells us that God created a beautiful world for us to enjoy, designed for us as a place to thrive and to exercise our true nature as those made in His image and likeness. But leaving us in charge came with a risk—the possibility that we might discover ways to selfishly manipulate things to our own supposed advantage. Of course, that is exactly what we have endeavoured to do, and the result is the tragedy and heartache that has infected what was once pure and perfect. Hence, the barrage of bad news that daily presents itself through our computer screens, smartphones and televisions.

If the story stopped there, life would all be rather hopeless. Unfortunately, so many have come to that very conclusion. Or, alternatively that we can fix it all if we would just (once again, insert ideological solution). Or that maybe we’ll all just get lucky and 2017 will be better.  

But the gospel offers real hope—the good news that we just celebrated at Christmas: that God is for us. That He has come, has conquered it all, and has made Himself available to walk us through even the worst of it. That beauty is alive and well in His world. It doesn’t all get reported in the media, but it’s there nonetheless. Babies are being born. People are celebrating 20th, 40th and 60th wedding anniversaries. Art is being created. Doctors and scientists are saving lives. The sun is rising and setting. And because God is at the center of all that is good, and with us in all that is not—and because He promises one day to restore all things—there truly is hope.

Let’s not be sucked in by the hopeless negativity of a world that cannot see beyond the obvious. Rather, let us walk into a new year with our eyes open to the reality of a world where tragedy and beauty exist side by side, our confidence based not upon ourselves, or our personal ideologies, or anything in our circumstances or surroundings, but with our eyes firmly fixed “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

 

 

“Cause the players gonna play…and the haters gonna hate…heartbreakers gonna break…and the fakers gonna fake…shake it off!”

— T. Swift

 

I just quoted Taylor Swift. Wow! 2017 is already shaping up to be a year full of surprises!

 

 

*In researching this post, I particularly enjoyed this article by Rebecca Onion of Slate magazine: 

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2016/07/is_2016_the_worst_year_in_history.html  

She debunks the “worst year ever” notion very thoroughly!