Riding Shotgun with Grace: Lessons Forgotten and Remembered at a Red Light.

The other day, I pulled up at a red light next to a custom-painted Chevy Impala.

The dude in the car was probably half my age, with multiple pieces of hardware drilled into or dangling from his face, and tattoos that would make a Puritan have to ask for definitions in order to properly blush.

But back to his car, as it’s the first thing I noticed. This paint job was unbelievable in at least two senses of the word. First, it was *perfect*. I am assuming he just finished his 6-step waxing and buffing process just hours before, because the sunlight did things to that paint that gave it an almost Pixar-esque cartoonishness, standing out amongst us mere mortals with our cheap factory paint jobs.

Next, this Impala had color-shifting paint: meaning that as you approached, it was greenish, and as you passed the car it changed to a radiant and sparkling purple. Somehow, throughout all phases of color, it appeared to be subtly gold in addition to the other colors. Like I said: unbelievable.

Beyond the paint job, the car was sitting on wheels at least 30 inches in diameter, and tires with such a low profile they looked like the rubber bits attached to a shopping cart’s wheels.

All of what would normally be chrome on the car (wheels/rims, seams, bumper and exhaust) was a lightly brushed gold, that served to give it a sort of glow.

I honestly didn’t notice many of the details until I got done repenting.

See, my first step in what’s hopefully becoming a quicker process (as I don’t foresee ever being able to get rid of the impulse altogether) was to immediately do what the Bible calls “seek to justify myself.”

From 80+ yards, I’d already started a list of why God, my mom, and everybody I’ve ever met should like me more than this guy. Since I don’t know his name, I’ll call him Marshall.

Here’s what the list looked like, and I’d completed much of it in my head (and a little bit of it out of my mouth, alone there in my painfully boring car) by the time we landed side-by-side right there by the supermarket:

  • Marshall spent more on each wheel of his vehicle than I spent on my entire vehicle. So financially irresponsible!
  • The hopped-up suspension and Wal-Mart buggy wheels served no purpose other than to call attention to himself. So self-centered!
  • The music blaring from his open window (not to mention the smoke coming from the cigarette dangling from his bottom lip) was proof-positive that Marshall wasn’t raised right. So inconsiderate to others around him, and smug!

I could go on, but it would reveal some pretty gnarly things about what goes on in my heart, so I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

It’s not just strangers and their automotive displays, though. The default mode of my heart is to make lists of why what I am doing or thinking is right, and others are either not-as-right, or just (almost cheerfully!) wrong. I’ve got a scorecard, and a need to win.

I do this score-tallying nonsense (we’ll get into why it’s nonsense in just a bit, hang tight) with friends, family (both immediate and extended), people at work, and readers of this very blog. Left to my own devices, I desperately want to be weighed and not found wanting.

Another example? Another example it is.

Recently I’ve started eating differently in an effort to improve those Lipid Panel numbers my doctor seems so obsessed with. It’s taken a good bit of work, and it’s a bit of a potentially controversial diet for some.

The other day, as I was verbally processing things with my supernaturally patient wife (who has no doubt grown tired of everything being somehow related back to Ben’s New Diet™) she remarked with something like “It’s funny how with this diet you find yourself defending things that people have not even yet said to you. You always have to have a reason and be ready to win an argument.”

There it is. My good ol’ default mode. Not only do I have a constant need to justify myself, I plan for it.

  • I gather evidence and stats.
  • I prepare and rehearse what I am going to say. (no really… I literally will talk to myself while driving or walking around, in preparation for a still-nonexistent debate)
  • I am rarely satisfied with being misunderstood.

That last one’s a reliable tell for me, actually. I’ve written about it before, but one of the most astounding parts of Jesus’ earthly ministry was an episode (recorded in John 6) where the religious leaders overhear him refer to himself as “the bread of heaven.” The leaders get confused (rightly) and say something to the effect of “so… we’re all just supposed to eat your flesh?” and instead of stopping to explain himself, Jesus doubles down: “yep, eat my flesh and drink my blood!”

I could never.

These men walked away from the conversation with at least 2 distinct impressions: (1) Jesus is *weird* and (2) following Jesus sounds messy in more than one way.

Why and how can Jesus walk away from the conversation without thinking twice about it? At least this: he derives exactly none of his worth or value from being understood. He’s not loved more when he’s understood more, or based on whether the people he’s speaking with learn something or have a right opinion of him.

Graciously, I noticed it quickly as I pulled up next to Marshall and his Impala on Highway 72, and began preaching at myself.

One neat thing about being a musician having played hymns and hymn retunes for some years is that sometimes the lyrics of a song that’s nestled into my brain (even though I haven’t sung it in years) will find their way out. That’s what happened as I shifted into 2nd gear heading toward my house. I found myself reminded:

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul
Not what my toiling flesh has bourne can make my spirit whole
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load

Thy Grace alone oh God to me can pardon speak
Thy power alone oh Son of God can this sore bondage break
No other work save thine! No other blood will do
No strength save that which is divine can bare me safely through

I praise the God of grace, I trust His truth and might
He calls me His, I call Him mine: My God, my joy, my light
Tis He Who saveth me and freely pardon gives
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives!

Horatious Bonar

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