catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 6 :: 2006.03.24 — 2006.04.07


Accountability ahead

It’s amazing how quickly the act of driving can alternate between outright joy and utter tedium. You begin a road trip, basking in the adventure of the American highway, and four hours later you’re bored out of your skull. Or you finally get your driver’s license and the freedom that entails, and the next day you have to chauffeur your sister to piano practice. Driving holds the potential for freedom and adventure, but most of the time we’re commuting to work or running errands. Perhaps that’s part of the reason behind road rage: unlike mundane tasks such as brushing our teeth or cleaning the gerbil cage, which have no promise of thrills, our dull uses of driving feel much like a dream deferred.

When I first moved to Seattle four years ago, it was fun to drive. I had no routines, no patterns of where I shopped and where I went for entertainment. I was willing to drive out of the way to explore, to visit new stores, to find new vistas from which to see Mount Rainier or the Puget Sound. I even found Seattle drivers more patient and courteous than those I’d encountered in the Midwest or on the East Coast. In four years I have only been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic twice, and only because of a tanker explosion and a bridge closure. Nevertheless, expectations change. The closer I get to what I would like (free sailing down every street with no red lights, and no lanes blocked), the more frustrated I’ve become at small inconveniences. Little by little, I’ve noticed a coarsening of my spirit when on the road. These days I’m more likely to be on my usual pattern of errands, pressed for time, rather than wandering and exploring. I somehow picked up the habit of verbally or mentally berating other drivers who get in my way.

I have no right to complain, not when I get to trek through neighborhoods lined with cherry blossoms and when the Northwest haze lifts and the skyline is graced with snowcapped mountain ranges. Not when I’m fortunate enough to own a car at all. Not when I make my share of mistakes on the road. But habits don’t usually develop through logical decisions. I’m not sure I even really noticed my anger until some of the other people in my church small group mentioned their own tendencies toward frustrations on the road. I realized that was something I needed to work on. Since the purpose of our group is to study Scripture and to make short-term spiritual goals that best help us align ourselves to the teachings of the text, I shared this goal with the group and asked them to help keep me accountable.

My original intent was simply to keep from verbally lashing out when drivers annoyed me. That didn’t work so well. I still felt angry, and since the verbal attacks had always damaged my own spirit more than the other drivers’ egos (since they couldn’t hear me in the first place), I wasn’t really changing much. I next tried to replace a cry of anger with a soothing affirmation of the other driver: “Go ahead, take all the time you need to turn. I’m in no hurry.” “Please, cut in front of me. I’m happy to let you in.” It took about thirty seconds before these became very sarcastic in tone. I soon realized that I was trying to make a habit change when what I needed to make was a spirit change. I didn’t need to alter my outward behavior but my inward reaction, which would take care of my behavior on its own. I needed a spirit of patience. God had given me a conviction and a direction, but I needed more. I needed him in each moment.

“God, grant me patience” has become my new reaction to any driving frustration; the moment I feel enmity boiling up inside me I turn to prayer. Sometimes I catch myself before I boil over, and sometimes it’s a prayer of repentance afterward. But it’s slowly working. My intention in driving seems to be shifting?from getting to wherever I’m headed to using the time on the road to talk to God. I am trying not to use “God, grant me patience” as an empty mantra, but to linger in prayer with God while I have been spurred to give him my attention. As a person whose prayers tend to drift, I began to appreciate being nudged back to God every few minutes. In fact, if I have an uneventful trip somewhere, I feel like I’ve missed out. While this experiment began simply as an exercise in being slow to anger, it’s ended up creating a space in my life to meet God in prayer: a mobile, aging, noisy, cluttered house of worship.

There is power in accountability. Not accountability in the sense of sharing our deep, dark sins and keeping a tally of whether we succumb, but accountability in pursuing a Christ-like heart through simple actions. Each week I know I’m going to have to report back to my group how I am doing in my growth process, and that’s immensely motivating. I don’t think I would have stuck with this process very long if I had only heard a sermon about patience or read a book about it, something where there was no follow-up to the lessons taught. In our group we put into practice simple, measurable spiritual goals?reading the Bible each day, praying with our spouse, being on time to church, turning to worship in times of stress, saying a kind word to someone at work we don’t get along with, connecting with an old friend we’ve ignored—in hopes that over time we can train our spiritual muscles to act without cramping up at each challenge. None of us receive forty lashes with the whip if we fail at our goals. In fact, by themselves, they’re not that important. These goals don’t automatically translate into deeper faith or a regenerated spirit. But little by little, we’ve found that working on the minutiae of spiritual living opens up our hearts to a lasting spirit change. In our weekly meetings we receive from each other the motivation to keep going, to keep striving toward that often-elusive end.

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