Zen and the Art of Suburban Driving

Zen Pictograph

Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.

I don’t know if you remember a book from the early 1970’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It was a freakish best-seller that caught on with everyone from hippies to philosophy professors. It recounted a motorcycle trip by the author and his son, narrated by an alternative persona named Phaedrus. Phaedrus attempts to reconcile the classic view of life and reality with the romantic side, or the rational with the spiritual, emotional and intuitive parts These lofty considerations aside, one comment I would make about the book is that Phaedrus is totally crazy about maintaining his machine. Now, I’ve never even been on a motorcycle, much less ridden one, but I do know that bicycles take some maintenance. And maintaining one wasn’t what I would call a high point in my life, and I certainly didn’t burst with joy when I had to do it. Call me insensitive, but that’s how it is. (A bit of free advice here: never, never, never, I repeat, never attempt to adjust the spokes on a bicycle. You’ll end up with a wheel whose shape might charitably be described as resembling that of a hippodrome. Oval wheels don’t make for a smooth ride, so just bite the bullet and pay someone to do it who knows how.)

The book sometimes ended up in the car/truck/train/airplane motorcycle section of some bookstores, and I’ll tell you why. This is a well-kept secret, so don’t tell anyone, but people who buy for bookstores don’t read every book they put on the shelf. Neither do librarians. They read reviews, and this practices sometime got school librarians in trouble when a book contained material unsuited for students. We English teachers didn’t have that problem because we were required to read every book we taught. This didn’t cause much strain on us since English teachers like to read. We also understood the importance of becoming familiar with everything we taught. One teacher didn’t preview a film called The Golden Fleece and ordered it, thinking it was about Jason and the Argonauts. It wasn’t: it was about sheep ranching in Australia. If I had done this, I wouldn’t have told anyone about it, but she told everyone.

All this is a prelude to my latest attempt to save money and gas (but not time). I have taken to driving at the speed limit (not five miles over, which seems to be the norm around here) and coasting as much as possible. I have found I am able to coast most of the way from Caton Merchant House where my Dad lives to my house. I have learned several things from this experiment:

  1. If you’re going to do this, don’t try it with a long line of traffic behind you. You’ll either be shot or run over.
  2. Expect to become very aware of the topography of the region. Since I started doing this, I find myself looking for a route with as many downslopes as possible. Of course, that means going uphill on the way back, but into every life some rain must fall.
  3. Deliberately slowing down induces in me a state resembling that of meditation. We all live busy, harried lives, and driving is a big stressor. It doesn’t have to be.

I have not run through a tank of gas yet doing this, but I’ll let you know if it works. If it doesn’t I can always go back to driving like I’m in a stock car race. Old habits are hard to break.

All this does have a spiritual side. I believe God honors us when we are still, when we take our time, when we are more aware of God’s creation all around us. I hope whatever method you choose to achieve these states of mind, it works for you and that it works well and allows you to let God work in and through you to the glory of God and the coming of the heavenly kingdom.



A Found Grace

Elderly Lady Clapping Her Hands

Psalm 118: 27-29 (alt.) The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With palms in our hands, we join the festal procession marching to the holy sanctuary. Lord, you are God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. And so give thanks to the Lord all you people all over the world. Our God is good, and the Father’s steadfast love endures forever, to all generations.

I don’t know how you feel about applause, or if you have an opinion about it one way or the other. It’s not something that generally stirs strong feelings, although it did in churches a while back when congregations starting applauding high moments, perhaps to excess. You didn’t hear it from me, but some contemporary services (not the ones here, of course) have so much applause it sounds like they’re voting for the best singer or ditch digger or accountant on one of those awful TV games shows you can still find in the upper 7000’s of cable lineups.

We as congregations have come to at least tolerate or actively use applause to indicate we have been moved or stirred or touched. In fact, if an anthem is greeting by dead silence (as sometimes happens when the congregation is mulling over the emotional impact of the song), I feel like a failure and want to run away and live in the rain forest among cannibals. But the cooler heads that surround me manage to keep me here, and I’m glad to that.

Anyhow, to the point:

Sometimes moments of grace occur in our lives at times we least expect them and in places that seem most unlikely to be filled with grace. Last week after I had visited my dad in his apartment at Caton Merchant House, I walked past the dining room where one lady remained long after the lunch was finished. At CMH, as the cool kids call it, residents can stay at the table as long as the cafeteria is open, which it is all day. One fellow sits there all day, slowly eating his food. I asked one of the nurses about him, and she said, “He enjoys eating.” And so he does. Such enjoyment of a simple pleasure is commendable, I think.

As I went by this lady, whom I did not know, I saw she was gently and soundlessly clapping her tiny hands. I try to speak to each resident I encounter whether I know them or not, so I went over and said, “M’am, I saw you were clapping. Were you applauding anything in particular?”

She looked up at me with clear blue eyes and said, “That’s how I praise God for my meal and for being so good to me for so long.”

I walked out into the warm sunshine thinking that once again I had found grace in an unlikely place. And I won’t ever think of applause in quite the same way again.