I always see television shows portray family trips as horrendous forays the wrong way across the river Styx. The dad is always intent on driving as many miles a day as possible, refusing to stop for any reason other than fuel. The mom is always lecturing the rest of the family about togetherness and/or descending slowly into madness by the sibling squabbles in the back seat. The kids are always bored, or carsick, or sad about leaving their friends behind, or angry about their eventual destination, or all of those things and more. It’s always excruciating, with each misadventure worse than the last, to the point that even those of us who have chosen to watch the episode are relieved when it’s over.
Honestly though, these kinds of failures in holiday are something that I simply do not understand. I always loved my family’s car trips. I won’t say that they were perfect, but the passions they stirred up in me were always ones which I tried to replicate and build on after the fact – even to this day. I always felt several things which made me love those memories and attempt to re-capture them. Not just the feelings of excitement or eagerness regarding the destination. After all, sometimes the trip was less to do with being somewhere than it was getting somewhere (like when we moved across the country). No, the passions were stirred up by the trip itself instead.
Sometimes, as the miles slipped by and what was comfortable grew more remote, simultaneous waves of freedom and courage came over me. I triumphed in the fact that I was seeing something new, breathing virgin air, treading un-tread ground. I had been set free from the tyranny of the familiar; new mountains changed the horizon and the new vistas beckoned me on. The small amount of courage within me felt buttressed by that call and I always felt that, even if my dad had hit the brake and turned the vehicle around, I would have been compelled to get out and struggle forward on foot. Such was the irrepressibility of the call.
Sometimes these feelings of freedom and courage made me feel a link to the great explorers and settlers of the past. As we trundled along the highways of the late-20th century, I couldn’t help but feel some small kinship with those who crossed the same plains and deserts in covered wagons. Though thoroughly explored in my time, the next bend or the next valley concealed something new for me; something which my eyes had to behold and my mind had to map. Perhaps it was this same irrepressibility which drew the first explorers on? And perhaps it is something that abides in me too? And perhaps, because it’s shared between me and them, I’m capable of successfully fighting the elements just as they did?
Sometimes the car would come around a bend, or top out on a ridge, and there through the bug-splattered windshield, would be stretched out before us a river winding amongst rocky crags and pine forest, or a lake shimmering beneath a setting sun, or a mesa flanked by 20 foot tall saguaros. As my soul would drink it in – my mind trying desperately to take in every detail – I’d be forced into awe. Pure as a mountain stream, pristine as an alpine tarn, vibrant as a full moon, a passionate embrace of wonderfully-powerful awe would overcome me. How can such beauty be mine to see? No one had charged me admission to see such wonders, they were just there. No one had written some repulsive jingle to advertise its sensations and sell me on its curiosities. No, the awe was bolded, italicized and underlined by its lack of plastic, modern preamble; and the joy was more clean and proper as a result.
Sometimes that awe would spill over into a feeling of joy that I was fortunate enough to draw breath in a world so beautiful. The trees were suddenly dance partners with me, bending and swaying in the same currents of air that ruffled my hair as I rolled the window down. The mountains were suddenly singing the same song that was in my heart as they lifted their heads into the clouds. The rivers were running with my mind along courses between grasses and flowers. Somehow my heart knew the dance. Somehow my mind knew the harmony. Somehow my soul knew the lyrics to nature’s song. With my head leaned against the window of the car, I saw bar after bar of nature’s symphony slide by and my imagination allowed me to join into its intricacies and splendors.
Sure … sometimes I felt those things. But I always drew closer to God, regardless of the level of concord with it. No, I won’t say that I was always deliberate in drawing closer to God at those times. Often my mind wandered down the canyons and creek beds which slipped by and all that I thought about was what kind of stories might have taken place in them. However, in retrospect I realize that each moment spent watching creation pass by my window was a moment of alteration or modification by God. When we sing something like, “tune my heart to sing Thy grace,” (as in the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing), should we be surprised when God answers that prayer and works on our hearts even when we are unaware?
Yes, I felt freedom … and courage … and awe … and unity with those who went before … not to mention harmony with the marvelous creation. Nevertheless, what gave those passions vitality was the Living God.
As we get older and look back at the motivations and goals in our lives, if we are honest in our assessments, we soon realize just how much of our time, money and energy is spent on trying to recapture fleeting moments of pleasure. I’ve noticed that the restaurant which was so much of a pleasant surprise the first time is then rarely as tasty the second. I’ve noticed that the movie that was winsome and fun the first time is dreadfully boring and tedious the second. I’ve noticed that the book which was groundbreaking and powerful the first time is not worth the paper it’s printed on the second. And perhaps, when a family, on a sitcom or in real life, piles into the family station wagon to go on a cross-country trip and then find it a trip through purgatory, it is because the parents, in misguided optimism, believe they can recreate an once-in-a-lifetime good experience a second time. But the joy isn’t in the action itself … is it? There is very little enjoyable about carsickness, McDonald’s, and dirty truck stop bathrooms after all. No, the joy is/was in the surprise; something which can’t be replicated subsequently – whether all or none of the individual elements of the trip are changed. Some of the surprise has worn off; the distinctiveness is less distinctive.
As I said, the joy isn’t in the action itself. The joy is in the wonder of the moment. And this is the problem: a moment is fleeting. We sit, at a specific place in the universe, and each moment of time comes and goes, never to be seen again, with a thousand-billion external and a hundred-million internal chance happenings conspiring to make that moment what it is. To think that one could take a beautiful, glorious moment and distill it down to an essence which can be reconstituted at will – even when done with care – is immensely silly. In trying to engineer the incalculable we prove ourselves as incapable of recreating that joy as Laika (the dog the Soviets put it orbit) would be to recreate her rocket.
And yet we still attempt that re-creation of joy by recreating events. Why is this? Is it because it’s the only way we know how? We try to recreate moments because we can’t figure out how to recreate wonder? Like a junkie needs ever-larger doses of his drug to get the same result, we grow callous to the things which should fill us with wonder on a daily basis. That is … until we encounter God.
You see, what makes wondrous moments more numerous and easily-found is in a greater capacity to feel it, not in a more intense search. Seeing a great, snowcapped mountain rising above a green valley might make the most pitifully stunted person stop for a moment in wonder, but condition that boorish man to the mountain and the wonder is irretrievable. He’s made insensitive by its proximity. You could increase the vibrancy of the green valley and grow the mountain by X% every day, and the philistine would grow bored and jaded with more alacrity. However, when a man spends his life searching for God, he grows in capacity. As he grows in capacity, he grows in wonder. As he grows in wonder, he grows in joy. And as he grows in joy, he grows in love. The process can be repeated over and over again because God is infinitely bigger and more glorious than a man’s wonder has the capacity to grow. The process can be repeated anywhere, because God is present over all and in all and through all and therefore can make even the ordinary holy.
Which brings me back to those family road trips: They may have been awful for you because they were doomed before the vehicle backed fully out of the driveway. The reason is because trying to recapture a great moment is futile unless the heart is tuned to see God in the circumstances. Growing to love the passion of the trip – passions associated with freedom, courage, awe and kinship – occurs not due to the miles of road traversed or the convergence of chances that created the setting. Instead it grows out of a love for those passions at the beginning; and the love of those passions comes from associating them with God to the point that every tree and mesa and muddy brook reminds us of Him.
And … it just so happens that those associations will make the trips wonderful too. Don’t believe me? In all your ways submit to Him and He will guide you (Prov 3:6).
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:26-28a