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

Why I got an Earring

Imagine that you are watching a movie set in the spring of 1979. The screen shows a junior hockey game that has erupted into a full-on bench-clearing brawl. Hockey gloves and sticks are strewn about the ice surface, and all 40 players dressed for the game have partnered up with an opponent. A few of these pairs are actively throwing punches, but most are simply on “guard duty”— hold onto your partner and ensure that he does not enter the fray, leaving one of your teammates outnumbered. The camera slowly zooms in on one particular twosome on the fringe of the melee, the last duo to join the party. One is a goaltender, sans mask, longish blonde 70s hair fully on display for the viewing enjoyment of the many teenaged girls in attendance. The other player is a tall, lean forward.

The goalie intercepts the other as he skates slowly and somewhat awkwardly toward the pack. He establishes a tight grip on his adversary’s arms, just above the elbows. Although he is reasonably tall himself, he finds himself staring at his opponent’s pronounced adam’s apple. His dance partner does not attempt to grab him; his arms remain at his sides.

We’ve moved into a close up now. You can see and hear the goalie talking to the other player. “Hey, buddy, just relax,” he urges. “No chance you’re getting past me anyway.”

No response. The guy is looking directly at him, but remains silent and expressionless.

The goalie ensures that he keeps himself between his foe and his teammates. He has slowed the other player’s progress, but not entirely stopped it. He tries a different approach. A smile, followed by, “Be cool, man. This game’s over. Let’s just hang out over here ‘til they sort this all out.”

Still nothing. Except that the taller one has stopped skating.

Now they are a statue, two warriors face to neck, the goalie’s eyes upturned so that he can meet his rival’s unflinching stare. He tries another smile, a light-hearted half-joking comment or two, mostly just to show (the other player? the girls in the stands? himself?) that he is not intimidated.

But he was. Very much so. I know this because I was him. In 1979, I was a 17 year old goalie playing for the Grande Prairie Northstars junior hockey team. I had left family and friends at home in my hometown of Calgary to pursue the dream; I was going to be a professional hockey player one day. In the NHL. Seriously. Stop laughing.

I didn’t want to fight that guy, or any guy, really. But especially not that guy. All the signs were there; he was a weak skater, unusually tall, and had spent most of the game sitting on the end of his team’s bench. Back then, guys like that were kept around for one very specific reason; they were known as enforcers (aka policemen, tough guys, fighters, goons). The cold stare was merely a confirmation.

I have recalled this event often over the years, and chuckled a little to myself, but only very recently did I consider this startling possibility: What if he was just as scared as I was?

Yes, he was tall, but pretty skinny. And the fact that he didn’t skate well or play much? Maybe he just wasn’t a very good player who was lucky to make the team, but terrified out of his mind whenever they actually let him on the ice. He manages to make it almost all the way through an important game without embarrassing himself, and then a brawl breaks out. He takes his time making his way from his spot on the bench to the ice, and is relieved to find that he ends up with the other team’s goaltender (typically the most harmless of hockey players). But this goalie is a little bit belligerent. And what’s with the smile? Is he mocking him? So he just plays a role most teenaged boys know all too well: don’t smile, don’t talk, act tough.

Two teenagers acting for the camera.

Not long after that incident, I realized that I wasn’t going to make it as a hockey player. I moved on to other things, but I never stopped acting. It became a pattern I repeated over and over again in my life: find a way to fit in, then find a way to stand out. I wasn’t a great athlete as a boy, but I was smart enough to notice that the jocks were very popular. In Canada, the big sport is hockey, so I learned to be a hockey player. To fit in. Then I poured myself heart and soul into hockey in an attempt to become an excellent goalie. To stand out. When the hockey dream died, I became by turns a partier, a Christian, a student, a husband, a teacher, a father. In each area I looked at what other people did and copied them, so I would fit in. Then, in each area, I pushed myself to become the best. To stand out. Learn the part, play the role. Figure out the expectations others have for you, then meet them. Having done that, strive to exceed them.

I do not recommend this lifestyle. Which is not to say that one should not be aware of others’ expectations, or seek to do one’s best. But there is a fine line between healthy striving, and living your life according to the expectations of others. They can look very much alike on the outside, but the latter comes at great cost emotionally, spiritually and even physically.

This has been a hard lesson for me, and a long time coming. If you had asked me even a few years ago to what extent I cared about what others thought about me, the answer would have been, “Not very much. I do what I think is right.” But through a variety of circumstances over time, God graciously held up a mirror that forced me to see myself as I really was, with all of my mixed motivations. To be clear, this was not a pleasant experience.

I’ll not pretend that the turnaround was immediate, or that it is even complete. But I do feel a new freedom to live my life free of the burden of others’ expectations. The freedom to explore more fully the unique gifts, passions, circumstances and experiences that I have been given, and to figure out how I might utilize and enjoy them all in the context of God’s plan and purpose for my life. This, I am discovering, is a much more joyful way to live.

This past summer, I celebrated my 55th birthday and retired after a 31 year teaching career. It represented the end of one phase of my life, and the beginning of another. It was a pretty significant event, I thought, and one worth commemorating, so I treated myself. I got my left ear pierced.

There have been a number of responses. My wife, who was in on the secret, loves it, but my kids were pretty much dumbfounded. Friends’ reactions have been varied: from “Why on earth did you do that!” to “Cool!” to “Mmmm . . .  midlife crisis?” (complete with eye roll). Some say nothing, leaving one to wonder whether they noticed. Others glance at the earring, look back at my face, back at the ear, then look away, saying nothing, leaving no doubt that they have noticed. Bless their hearts; they’re being polite.

None of these reactions were unexpected; in fact they were the reason I spent several minutes in my car outside the piercing shop, stomach churning, unsure whether I would have the courage to go through with it after all. But I did it. Why? Because I like the idea of wearing an earring. I think it suits me. Not necessarily the “me” that I have so often tried or pretended to be, but, I think, the real me. Introspective, creative, quirky, ironic me.

So I did it. And now, every time I look in the mirror, I see it, and it reminds me to just be who I am, and not worry about who everyone else thinks I should be.

No more acting for the camera.

 

 

 

 

“Now I live and I breathe for an audience of one,

because I know this journey is my own.”

— Sara Groves

 

 

 

 

 

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