I’ve only received two tickets in the course of my driving career, and both of them I can blame on church. One Sunday morning, I hopped in my sister’s lime green Plymouth Fury III and made a beeline to church. Driving east on 275, the ring interstate around Cincinnati, I saw that I was going to be late and put the pedal to the metal. Too late I saw a state trooper and he pulled me over for doing 71 in a 55 mile an hour zone. I told him where I was headed, but he showed no mercy. It cost me $50 bucks and I never told my parents. I was just 16.
But a few years later, I was in college in Indiana. I had just preached at a little Friends Church outside of Orestes, a tiny farming community northeast of Indianapolis. Back in the day, I drove a 1972 Dodge Charger with a 318 cubic inch engine, just enough power to get a college boy in trouble. Church was over, the parishioners had greeted me and were now headed for their dinner table, and I turned to a friend from school and challenged him, “I’ll race you back to college.” College was about a 20 mile drive north on straight, flat Hoosier farm roads. He took up the dare and 15 minutes after stepping out of the pulpit, I was driving a cool 110 miles per hour.
Now, do you remember a song called “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen?
Yes, it is just as obscure a tune as it sounds. The tagline was “Son, you’re going to drive me to drinkin’ if
you don’t stop drivin’ that hot .. rod .. Lincoln”. Still doesn’t ring a bell? But there’s a narrative in the lyrics where he’s racing a Cadillac and Commander Cody describes the action:
Now the fellas was ribbin’ me for bein’ behind,
So I thought I’d make the Lincoln unwind.
Took my foot off the gas and man alive,
I shoved it on down into overdrive.
Wound it up to a hundred-and-ten
My speedometer said that I hit top end.
My foot was blue, like lead to the floor,
That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.
Now the boys all thought I’d lost my sense
And the telephone poles looked like a picket fence
They said, “Slow down! I see spots!
The lines on the road just look like dots.”
I had the same sensation. When the telephone poles started looking like picket fences and the lines on the road looked like dots, I came to my senses. “This is crazy”, I thought to myself and I eased off the accelerator. When you’re going 110, it takes a few seconds to slow down, not long, but long enough for an Indiana State trooper to cite me for speeding. It was that magic number once again: 71 miles per hour in a 55. When I saw the ticket didn’t read 110 miles an hour, I practically got down on my knees and thanked the officer.
But that was 40 years ago. I don’t drive like that anymore, thank the Lord. Although, we were on a Midnight Run to distribute food and clothing to the homeless a couple years ago and I was driving the lead car into the city. Ryan was sitting beside me and my cell phone rang. It was one of the cars behind us. “Will you please tell your dad to slow down?”, they pleaded.
Why in the world, you might wonder, are we talking about my driving history on the first Sunday of 2018? I can think of several rationales: it’s New Year’s and we are making resolutions. Slowing down and becoming a more mindful driver is something we should all resolve to do. But the primary reason I thinking about how we drive comes from a sermon that Pope Francis offered on New Year’s Eve. He said that the people who have the most influence on society aren’t the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, the politicians or social media stars. No, they’re the ordinary people of the world, kind, thoughtful, generous, giving persons that Francis named “the artisans of the common good”. They don’t get credit for their good works, they don’t give speeches, they don’t expect recognition; they just do the right, good, civic-minded things that they do because they are good people.
But Francis particularly singled out drivers. Those people “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence”. In other words, the opposite of those who drive so fast that telephone poles look like picket fences. But seriously, how we drive molds the culture of our communities, it has an impact on the greater good of us all.
David Brooks of the Times put it this way:
“If you speed up so I can’t merge into your lane, you’re teaching me that the society around here is basically competitive, not cooperative. If, on the other hand, you give me a friendly wave after I let you in, you’re teaching me that this is a place where a kindness is recognized and gratitude is expressed.
If you feel perfectly fine doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, blocking everybody else going both ways, you teach me that people here are selfish and feel entitled. But if you get over to the right and wait your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, that teaches me that there’s a sense of fairness and equality, and that people feel embedded in the group.”
You see, how we drive shapes our community, our society, our communal identity. When I moved to New York from the Midwest, I learned fairly quickly that one couldn’t expect other drivers to just move over if you needed to merge. Sometimes you had to drive more aggressively to create the space you needed. But perhaps that’s not a positive thing. We tend to drive like those around us. Kindness breeds kindness, but aggression breeds aggression.
Having been raised in fundamentalist Christianity, my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders often asked us young people questions like, “If Jesus were here today, what kind of clothes would he wear? What kind of job would he have? What kind of car would he drive?” That last one always provoked a good debate. Would Jesus drive a BMW? Or a Volkswagen Beetle? A sensible Ford or a sporty Alfa Romeo? But the question we never asked was “How would Jesus drive?” How come we never talk about that in church?
My oldest, Nate (or Sean), was home for the wedding and he reiterated his belief that the worst drivers in the United States reside in Maryland. And we thought they lived in New York! But the insurance company, Allstate, has determined that some of the most accident prone drivers do indeed live in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. area. The least aggressive drivers live in Honolulu, Seattle, and Portland.
St. Mark’s gospel says at the beginning of Jesus’ good work, he went to his cousin John where he was baptized in the Jordan River. Now John, says Mark, was preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And all of Jerusalem went out to seek that forgiveness. There are times, we have to admit, when we could use some forgiveness for the way we drive, the way we interact in public, the occasions when kindness could trump aggression, but we choose the less socially good choice.
Listen to Brooks again:
“Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?
Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else’s, or are we all equal? BMW drivers are much less likely to brake for pedestrians at crosswalks. Prius drivers in San Francisco commit more traffic violations. People who think they are richer or better than others are ruder behind the wheel.”
How would Jesus drive? What if, instead of being baptized, our driving records determined whether we could become a member of this congregation? What if, when people cut us off in traffic, our response determined whether we could be called “Christian” or not? What if, instead of telling us to “turn the other cheek”, Jesus told us, “Don’t be a jerk when you’re behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound vehicle.”
How would Jesus drive? Not like me, I imagine. But if we want to be “artisans of the common good” as Pope Francis called kind, giving, civic-conscious people, I’m going to have to do better this year. I’ll need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And when I screw up, when I’m the idiot (instead of the guy who just cut me off in traffic), I’ll also remember that I am–like Jesus–beloved of God, who in spite of everything, who, in spite of my driving, is well pleased with you and me.