Few things cause you to question your faith like having teenagers. Witnessing their struggles to understand the condition of the world brings up a host of issues that may have been happily dormant in the back of your mind. Long gone are the days of the inquisitive three-year-old whose incessant question “Why?” would finally lead to a frustrated outburst of “Just because!” The questions of a 16- or 17-year-old are often passionate and desperate. The eye rolling of frustration, the tears of perceived injustice, and the general looks of confusion can leave you tossing and turning at night, wondering if you responded correctly.
Such has been my world for the past 18 months or so. There have been days when I’ve been rocked. I don’t think I’ve yet been knocked off my feet, but I’m certainly not as solid as I naively thought I was before entering into this season. A friend wisely shared with me that a teen’s faith “cannot be their own until they struggle through it.” After spending some time reflecting on that statement, I found myself wondering if I’d ever gone through that struggle.
Belief has always come easy to me. I never questioned the authority of Scripture. My relationship with God was always just there. Jesus was a constant in my life from the earliest memories I have. So, I find myself having to wrestle through some issues now. Depending on my mood on any particular day, the timing for this wrestling couldn’t be worse . . . or better.
Professionally, I’m responsible for building programs around Scripture engagement. My role is to connect with marginalized communities, giving them access to the hope and transformation that is possible through the hearing of God’s Word. Simple enough, right? Hardly.
The problem begins before I even send my first email of the day. Our nation has a long and mixed history of Christians’ treatment of the “least of these.” Though there are beautiful stories of compassion and love extended in the name of Christ, there are also accounts of horrendous pain inflicted by perpetrators hiding behind the mask of religious righteousness. It is the behavior of the latter group that causes my children to ask hard questions; and truth be told, I’ve found myself pondering them as well.
I’m finding it necessary to define for myself what I really believe. Do I believe that Scripture can transform someone’s life? Yes. Do I believe that it matters how Scripture is delivered and how it is used? Yes.
I’m naturally a storyteller, and I often find myself trying to organize my through process by converting my questions into a narrative, such as my allegory below. However, I caution others against reading too much into it. While I hope that this picture will help add structure to my own thoughts and bring clarity to anyone else slogging through confusion, I know that there are others who will find plenty of potholes as we travel down this road.
Life is a Highway
Imagine that your life is a highway stretched before you. You can’t see where it began, and you cannot see where it will end. You find yourself piloting a vehicle. What are you driving?
From your vantage point at a hilltop rest area, you see a wide array of vehicles. There are horse-drawn carriages, bullet bikes, classic cars, and school buses. There are cars broken down on the side of the road and drivers cruising along without a care in the world.
God is the designer of all these vehicles. He’s crafted them carefully and artistically. He’s lovingly written a universal owner’s manual to give explanation about the design and operation of whatever vehicle one has. There are clear instructions for keeping the vehicle in optimal condition. There are certain fuels that should not be put into the tank. There are directions about which fluids should be added. The manual mentions periodic checkups and maintenance best practices that will allow the vehicle to continue to run for decades.
However, some people just drive. They give no thought to how to maintain the vehicle. They don’t check the oil and pay no attention to the air in the tires. It isn’t until the vehicle breaks down that they consider anything beyond their cruising speed.
Sometimes, other drivers will come upon a broken-down vehicle and slowly drive by, wondering if they should do something to help. They assess the situation but ultimately choose to keep going. Other drivers will stop long enough to throw a copy of the universal owner’s manual out the window. It lands with a thud on the pavement. The disabled driver looks at it with bewilderment as the other driver continues on down the road.
Luckily, there are a few drivers who will take the time to pull over, open up the manual, and explain to the disabled driver how the information will help him make necessary adjustments to get going again. Both drivers feel elated at the ability to restore function, but they quickly part ways.
After a few miles, the driver who had earlier broken down sees smoke billowing out of the engine. Frustrated and angry, he again pulls over to the side of the road. His car lurches to a stop in a muddy and slippery rut. The exasperated driver knows that even if he’s able to fix the engine, he won’t have the needed traction to make it out of the mud.
Along comes a tow truck driver, who quickly assesses the problem. He joyfully hooks up the disabled vehicle while its driver climbs up into the cab of the truck. The tow truck driver asks where he should take the car. The owner, uncertain of who will best service his vehicle, does a quick Google search, and they end up at the nearest service station. We’ll leave this disabled driver here, cautiously assuming that the service station will serve him well.
Back out on the main highway, a bullet bike blasts past. The driver has thrown the owner’s manual in his backpack and races ahead. Believing no harm can befall him, he’s put on neither a helmet nor protective gear. Your heart catches in your throat as you remember another young rider you knew from your youth, who suffered life-changing injuries as he was clipped by a sedan whose driver didn’t see him coming. He was never the same after that accident. You shoot up a quick prayer for protection of this clueless young man.
Next down the road comes a motorcycle club. In helmets and full leather gear, with matching patches and flags, they cruise together. The mass of bikes is highly visible, providing greater protection from other drivers. This club is on mission to render assistance to drivers broken down by the side of the road. They’ve come equipped with tools, sandwiches, and extra copies of the universal owner’s manual. Some of the drivers they’ve assisted had been languishing so long that they eagerly snatch up the food and the manual. Others complain about the type of sandwich they’re being offered and point to the owner’s manual they already have, which lies unused on the back seat. The bike club moves on.
A noisy school bus catches your attention. It’s full of youth, singing loudly, waving their owner’s manuals out the window on their way to a conference. Depending on the mentality of the driver, the bus may or may not stop to help stranded travelers on the side of the road.
Then, a practical four-door sedan passes by. A frazzled mom is driving as two children fight in the back seat. Her husband is in a pickup truck, following behind. He’s talking on the phone, making business deals. He’s failed to notice that the toolbox in the bed of his truck has come open, and the owner’s manual if flapping wildly, threatening to leap out at the next bump in the road.
Finally, you see a minivan. It’s carrying a few adults who are all talking over one another, trying to make themselves heard. They see a young, confused driver who has become stranded. Exiting the van, these people ask some basic questions and then become enraged at the ignorance and even defiance they sense in the young driver. Voices raised, they ask why things haven’t been done differently, and then they actually begin to strike the young driver with their copies of the owner’s manual.
A loud noise directly overhead startles you. Looking up, you see a hot air balloon whose occupants are throwing miniature manuals over the sides. Though most of the booklets land on the road and are quickly run over by drivers, a few land alongside the highway, where they are occasionally picked up by curious drivers.
Getting into your own vehicle, you begin heading down the road. After a few miles, you realize that you are running low on gas, and you scout the road ahead for a filling station. As one comes into view, you look at the cost of gas. It’s much higher than you wanted to pay. Thinking you can make it to the next stop before you run out of gas, you press on.
Sweat begins to pour from your face as the low fuel light comes on the dashboard. You don’t see another station and you’re mad at yourself for not simply paying a few dollars more at the last stop. Just in the nick of time, you spot a station up ahead. Running on fumes, you pull in, temper flaring, as you see that the cost is even higher here.
As you put the nozzle into your car, you are greeted by a fellow traveler at the pump next to you. She begins to strike up a conversation about where you’re going and what milestones you’ve encountered so far. Her friendly demeanor puts you at ease. She asks if you’re in a hurry, and if not, if you’d like to go inside to chat over a cup of coffee.
Before you know it, you and the friendly traveler have been talking for hours. She’s referenced her owner’s manual a few times and explained certain portions in a way that you’d never considered before. She’s offered you her phone number and has encouraged you to call whenever you need to chat. More than that, she’s insisted that you meet her at a particular landmark in just a few days’ time. Leaving the gas station, you feel a sense of hope and encouragement that hasn’t been present for a long time.
Within a few months, you and your new friend have stopped at many landmarks along the highway. Some have been in ruins and others have been crafted with awe-inspiring skill. You find that you’ve learned some remarkable lessons with each stop.
But despite having found a traveling companion, you have still had times along your journey when you became distracted and ran out of gas. Though tempted to retreat into isolation, you swallowed your pride and called your friend, who quickly came to your aid without condemnation. Weeks later, your friend had to call on you for help after her car was stuck by an incapacitated driver. You’ve found that though traveling together may at times slow you down, it’s so much safer that driving alone.
So how do I conclude this little story of mine? I’ve written and deleted many an ending. I suppose that it will suffice to say that the Owner’s Manual matters, and how you use it is also important. It isn’t a weapon with which to harm fellow travelers. It isn’t something that should be shoved in a trunk or backpack, never to be consulted. Instead, it’s full of rich and powerful instructions on optimal living. Using it in community only serves to strengthen your understanding and application. As you travel down the highway, be on the lookout for people you can help, and be willing to receive the help of others.
“You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy. . . .” Psalm 16:11a (New King James Version)