Traffic Stop

This post also appears at http://www.inspireafire.com.

I’m sitting in traffic as I write this.

Sunset over highway

I don’t mean the backed-up-at-a-red-light kind of traffic. I wish I could write a blog post that quickly. No, I’m talking about the “highway is closed ahead due to two semis and a truck” kind of traffic. That’s according to a lady in a mini-van who apparently has inside knowledge from highway patrol somewhere to my rear.

She passes me slowly, the lady in the minivan, as I stand outside my car with half a dozen other people, stretching our legs. She rolls by half on the median as she tries to find a place where the median is a little less ditch-like in the hopes of crossing over.

“They said they have no idea how long it could be or what they are doing!” She shouts encouragingly as she rolls by.

Highway traffic

I am glad I recently made a pit stop, considering this part of Interstate 70 consists of nothing but wide-open fields with nary a bit of cover until darkness falls.

A few vehicles brave the small ditch in the median and do make it across, but most of us are sitting. Or standing.

And waiting.

The couple next to me have Kansas plates and a yellow lab they take for a walk. Ahead of me is a flatbed truck and behind me is a semi. I watch the sun set and the moon rise.

And I wait.

Our part of the highways turns to darkness. While headlights still pierce the eastbound lanes, our cars sit silent. No headlights, no flashing hazards. Only the occasional interior light or flash of a mobile device as someone rummages in their trunk. It’s remarkably quiet for sitting in the middle of a highway.

I’m mid-sentence on my keyboard when the world outside suddenly changes. Maybe it’s because I’m preoccupied, but the suddenness of the change catches me off guard. There is light and noise and movement. I toss my laptop on to the passenger seat, bring my car to life, and punch the gas. I had expected a gradual start-up, but in seconds I’m flying down the highway. The very last thing you want to do is stay in the middle of a highway with an entire line of cars behind you that have been sitting for two hour and are now ready to go.

Another mile down the road the congestion comes back. We move in starts and stops, bypass the crash scene, and then finally – finally – begin to move at a steady pace.

Isn’t that so like life?

highway at night

You’re hurtling along only to come to a screeching halt. A sudden change and you jump from 0 to 60 only to hit another road block. You stop and start. You detour. The stretches of smooth sailing sometimes seem few and far between.

We have a leader in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean the path is always clear. Like the Israelites following the pillar of fire in the desert, we don’t always know in advance when it’s time to go, or when it’s time to stay, or even which direction we’ll be headed next.

God grant to us the wisdom to know that when there is no clear path forward it may be time to sit and wait. And when the road suddenly opens up in front of us, let us be ready to punch the gas so we don’t get run over from behind.

Highway sign

Yes

The other night some friends invited me to an improv show.  Improv creates comedy by taking random audience suggestions and throwing them at the players (and sometimes audience members) on stage.  The players act out improbable scenarios, make up songs, and create comedic sketches completely on the spot. Improv shows are high energy, high audience participation.  In other words, improv is specially designed to entertain extroverts and terrify introverts. I, in case you missed it before, am an introvert.

But I’m fascinated by improv, so I said yes.

The thing that’s so fascinating about improv is how they do it.  How can a group of people spontaneously make up nearly two hours of dialogue, song, and dance and have it be anything but a train wreck?

Probably the same way you and I do.

When you come right down to it, improv is not so different from a day in the life.  We never know what’s coming, but there’s not much we can do once it does except jump in and make the most of it.  Sometimes things click and we race through laughter and camaraderie.  Sometimes things don’t, and we struggle just to make it through this scene.  (Please emcee, blow the whistle and make it stop.)

There’s actually a secret I read once.  The secret to improv is that the players must always say “yes.”  When you’re in the middle of an improv, you must always build off what another player does or says.  Even if you don’t like it, you have to grab hold of it and make something of it.  That’s what keeps the momentum and the story line going.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

We have an Emcee who not only controls the scene changes in our lives, He also orchestrates the audience suggestions and dictates the other players who are on stage with us.  Our job is to keep saying yes.  No matter what.

Think of how many heroes of the Bible are recorded because they said “yes” to a scenario God presented:

  • Abram was directed to a new and unknown land (Genesis 12:1-7).
  • Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus).
  • Elijah witnessed powerfully before the people (1 Kings 18:16-39).
  • Esther used her circumstances to save the Jewish people from massacre (Esther).
  • The disciples dropped their fishing nets and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22).

I also think of Joseph dragged to Egypt against his will (Genesis 37-45). For years he kept his focus on God even though he did not like the scenes that kept getting thrown his way.  If Joseph had shut down, if he had turned his back on God, if he had said “no” at any point, then he never could have burst onto the stage at that pivotal time to save both the Egyptians and his own family from famine.

Most important of all, Jesus Himself said “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing…”(John 5:19).  And the night before his crucifixion, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).Ultimately, we are saved because Jesus said “yes” to His Father.

We will never experience a casting call quite like our Biblical heroes or our Savior. But we are called to look for God’s presence right here, right now. All around us are opportunities that God is presenting.  He is bringing people onto our stage. He is setting a scene. He is cueing us to begin.  Who has God brought into your life recently that you can reach out to?  What need is on your doorstep that you can respond to? What whisper is in your heart that you can listen to?

Do you remember how this story started?  Some friends asked if I wanted to go to an improv show.

I said yes.

 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Today’s Quote

Most of the time when I read stats about the condition of our world, the numbers are so incomprehensibly large that my eyes merely glaze over.  These stats, however, convicted me:

The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children, and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases, and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions, and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children.  And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians.

The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.

~Katie Davis, Kisses from Katie (2011, p. 91-92)

Only 8 percent.  Eight percent!!  Suddenly, that is a number I can understand.  That is a number that even seems possible.

Here in the U.S. we’ve heard a lot in the past year about the wealthiest 1% versus the 99% of “ordinary Americans”.  Protestors rally carrying signs that proclaim “We are the 99.”  I’d like to propose a new question.  Not, are we part of the 99, but are we part of the 92?

Or are we part of that 8% that is following Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves?

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”  The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.  (John 21:15-17)

Southern Hospitality

Not too long ago, a visitor came to town.  I met with her briefly in my office and arranged a couple of meetings for her.  I gave her my phone number and told her if she had any trouble over the weekend to give me a call.  I thought I was being hospitable.

I am ashamed that in reality I was more concerned about my own weekend plans than in helping this visitor.  I failed to see through the business transaction to the person underneath.  I failed to see the opportunity God was giving me.  Even as I offered her my number, I was hoping my phone wouldn’t ring.  Would it have killed me to ask what she was doing for the weekend?  To meet her for lunch?  To take her to dinner?  To take an hour and walk her around town?

It took an extraordinary encounter to show me just how inhospitable I was.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29)

I recently boarded a plane to Brazil clutching a Portuguese phrasebook and an iPod of language lessons.  I figured I had 8 hours to learn how to say, “Where’s the bathroom?”  I was hoping my seatmate would be bilingual and willing to teach me a few essentials.  God had another lesson in mind.

My seatmate was not only bilingual, she was eager to practice her English.  Between her English, my phrasebook, and a pen and paper for when words failed us, we talked into the wee hours of the morning.  Before the plane touched down, she gave me her phone number and told me to call her.  She wanted to make me pau de queijo and show me some sites in Brasilia.  When I asked about taking a taxi downtown to meet her, she waved that away.  She would meet me at my hotel and drive me.

She arrived the next afternoon with a basket of freshly baked cheese bread and my own personal tour of the cathedral and all the capital buildings – both inside and out.  Downtown we ran into two people who I had met at my business meetings, and she invited them to join us.  We thought she was going to show us one more thing and return us to the hotel, but several hours later we were still circling the city, eventually stopping for acai ice cream along the river and then dinner at a local establishment.  The leftovers she asked them to box, and at a stoplight when she saw a man begging she held it out the window to him.  He took it with a softly spoken “obrigado.” 

She would have taken us all home with her if we had let her.  It was midnight before she finally dropped us back at the hotel with invitations to her family barbecue the next afternoon or an offer to take us to a concert at night.  My schedule did not allow me to connect with her again, but as I was packing the following night, my phone rang.  It was my new friend, wishing me safe travels on the rest of my trip and inviting me to come visit her anytime.  “Minha casa é a sua casa,” she said.  “My house is your house.”  And she meant it. 

I have never felt the story of the Good Samaritan as powerfully as when I witnessed this woman’s hospitality towards me.  Nor have I felt so convicted.  Not too long ago I considered the sharing of an emergency phone number to be hospitable.  Now, I have a new definition.

 “You go,” Jesus said, “and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). I have a long ways to go.

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you… And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:37-38, 40).

Obedience

I recently volunteered at a canine obedience trial.  Some dogs and handlers make it look so easy!  They move around the ring at the judge’s command, the dog’s head never moving more than an inch from the handler’s side.  And yet, the biggest test of obedience often comes not during the intricate heelwork, but during a seemingly simple part of the trial.  For three minutes, all the dog has to do is sit… while the handlers walk out of the ring and out of sight. 

As the handlers leave the ring, some dogs sit stoically without a glance to the left or right (impressive!).  But, there are always those dogs whose expressions grow concerned.  You can almost see the little thought bubbles forming above their heads.  “Did she tell me to stay?  I wonder if she really meant that?  She’s not even looking!  Surely it’s okay if I just lie down?”  They shift, they crane their heads around to see the point where their handler went out of sight, and sometimes, they slide down into a more comfortable position…and are disqualified.

How like these dogs we are when it comes to doing our Handler’s bidding!  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we listen to that little voice that begins to question.  “He didn’t really say that, did He?” Did God really say you must not eat fruit from any tree in the garden?

The question is followed shortly by reassessment.  Just like the thought bubble forming above those canine’s heads, we begin to think that what God said doesn’t really jive with what we’re seeing.  And based on what we’re seeing, we begin to put words in God’s mouth.  What He probably really meant was…  When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… 

Which leads us to the action.  We decide to test it ourselves, just like those pups going from a sit into a down. That isn’t being willfully disobedient, is it?  She took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 

But no matter how we reason, no matter how much we think God may not be watching, disobedience has a consequence: “Disqualified!”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

It is disappointing for handlers to return to the ring and see their dogs in the wrong position.  No matter how perfectly they had executed all the other exercises, this one test of obedience and endurance is enough to send them out of the ring empty handed.  How much greater disappointment must our God feel in us!  Dog and handler lose a ribbon and points toward a title, but we lose fellowship with our God.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

God calls us to obedience to his Word and to his command.  The more we question and the more we begin to rely on our own judgment to make a decision, the more we will slide down into a more comfortable position…and be disqualified. Thanks be to God we have a Savior who has invited us back into the ring!  It is through our faith in Christ that God looks not upon our disqualifications, but upon Christ’s qualifications.  We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but by staying an inch away from His side, we can execute even the most intricate patterns of obedience.  And during those times when we look but cannot seem to see Him, it is through adherence to His commands that we will remain in the exact right place.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

Speeding

I have received two speeding tickets in my life.  (According to Murphy’s Law, I suppose I should add the caveat “so far.”)  The first one was well deserved.  I was driving back from a conference in Connecticut to my apartment in western New York.  I’d stopped to visit my parents and left way too late.  It was getting close to midnight, I still had two hours to go, and I was flying low along the New York thruway.  When those blue lights pulled up behind me, no amount of tears was going to get me out of that ticket.

The second one was more recent.  I was driving to the Indianapolis airport through that never ending construction on 465.  As I merged onto the highway, I dutifully slowed down.  A little.  It was one of those stretches they had actually completed.  All the lanes were open, traffic around me was still moving close to 65, and slowing down to 45 would have been suicide with traffic barreling down behind me.  Then, as we came around the corner, there was a whole string of special patrols.  I watched as an officer released the car he was done with and aimed his radar gun right at me.  Here I was, trying to go slow, traffic passing all around me, and yet I was the one getting a ticket.  (I was just a tiny bit upset.)  But here’s the kicker.  As unfair as this scenario seemed, the fact is: I was speeding.  It didn’t matter that those around me were going even faster.  It didn’t matter that slowing down would have gotten me run over.  When it was me and the officer face to face, the only thing that mattered was how fast I was driving.  The posted speed limit was 45; I was going faster than 45; I deserved a ticket.

It’s very easy when we are cruising along a highway to ignore the posted speed limit and go with the flow of traffic.  It’s equally easy to cruise through life ignoring God’s commands and following the actions of those around us.  But just as that officer did not care how my speed compared to everyone else, so God is not impressed with our relative position among humanity.  When you are face to face with a speeding ticket, the only question is, “Did you break the law – yes or no?”  And when you are face to face with God, the only question will be, “Did you break my law – yes or no?”

The Bible is very clear that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None of us, by our own power, can perfectly obey the laws which God has set for us.  But the law serves an important function.  It is through God’s law that we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:20), and this awareness of sin shows us our need for Jesus. 

When we use other people as our speed limit, we will always find those more sinful than us, and we will fail to see the depths of our own sins and our desperate need for a savior.  But when we look to God’s speed limit, we can find both our weakness and our salvation.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). 

Belief in Christ begins with a daily acknowledgement that we cannot obey God’s speed limit alone.  We need to invite Jesus to become not just an occasional passenger, but the main driver of our life.  It is only through belief in Jesus that on the day when our car is pulled over, God will shine His light in the window and instead of our sins, He will see the perfect life of Jesus. God will say, “The speed limit I set for you was to live as perfectly as my Son Jesus Christ.”  Make sure He can continue: “I do indeed see Jesus Christ in you.” 

Today, take your eyes off the people around you, and look instead at the example of Jesus.  Invite Him to be your driver.  There is no other way to obey God’s speed limit.

For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)