Someone else’s nail winds up in your tire and before you can say “psssst” the road of life gifts you with a flat. It rarely occurs at a convenient time, and often chooses to happen on the narrowest road with the least amount of shoulder room available or the busiest of interstate exits. Beyond the inconvenience, the most difficult part of the ordeal can be remembering exactly where in the car the manufacturer decided to hide the jack. Inside the trunk? In a side storage compartment over the wheel well? Beneath the front seat? Fortunately, my last tire ordeal was a slow leak rather than a blowout, allowing me to drive to the repair center for service rather than sweat through a roadside change.
Exiled to the customer service lounge at the tire center, I waited for the repair to be completed. Waiting areas are a nice idea, but the experience can be like a cross between blind dating and prison. You never know with whom you’re being set up, how long you have to pretend you’re enjoying it, or how quickly you’ll be paroled. Sitting at the mercy of a blaring TV to which no one was listening and a group of fellow customers who were engrossed in an animated conversation, it was my intent to ignore the entire racket and serve my time.
Despite our best efforts some voices simply cannot be tuned out, having a volume or tone that refuses to be denied. One of those was holding forth a few chairs away from where I sat that day. It was from him that I overhead these words: “When I go to church I want to learn something, and I want to be encouraged so that I can go out and face this nasty world.” This statement was part of an explanation of why he had recently stopped attending one church and chosen another. More honestly, it was about his dissatisfaction with that particular pastor, but this version presented the matter in a far nobler fashion. His departure was not an impulse decision. He spoke with the minister in advance, explained what was lacking in the worship experience, gave advice on what the minister could do to improve the situation, and allowed a few weeks to see if things changed.
I appreciated this person’s desire that learning be part of his worship experience. I admired the fact that in the midst of his dissatisfaction he hadn’t impulsively “taken his toys and gone home,” leaving behind a mystery for others to waste countless hours trying to solve. Instead, he’d voiced his frustrations to his minister because, in his words, he needed help dealing with life.
Still, something about the exchange troubled me. With time, I realized the disturbing part of those comments was the description of this world as “nasty.” As used that day, it sounded disgusting and dismissive. What would be the determining factor in awarding a negative label like that to our experience of life? I suspect that characterization was likely formed either by teaching the person received over time or his interpretation of life’s experiences.
For whatever reason, much of Christianity ignores statements in Genesis that God blessed all creation and called it good. Instead, it prefers to give nearly unlimited power to the idea that humanity’s propensity for self-centeredness creates a sinful condition that places a giant pause on any discussions of goodness. When it comes to the topic of sin, preachers can be like pigs in a mud hole – they love to wallow in it to the point that every sermon is covered in mud: what it looks like; what it feels like; how it cakes as it dries; categories of mud; how impossible it is to stay out of it or remove it; and so on. Thanks to this fascination with mud if there were a Cliff Notes for Christianity, under the section on creation, in the words of South Park’s Mr. Mackey, it would likely say, “The world is bad, m’kay?” Tarnished thanks to humanity’s depravity. It’s a treacherous place for the faithful, so be wary – be in the world but not of it. It’s nasty. It is that simple. That’s a common viewpoint, to be sure; but is it accurate? Is it the whole story?
If my waiting area buddy didn’t adopt this point of view from previous teachings shared with him, then perhaps this perception of a “nasty” world was formed by his life’s experiences. After all, they are extremely influential. What if he grew up as an unwanted child, ignored at home or passed around in the system, never feeling like he was loved or belonged? Or if for reasons he never understood he was always identified as being one the outcasts or underachievers in his school? What if he was passed over for college admission or a scholarship that would have changed the paths available in life? Or perhaps a few bad decisions derailed his dreams and he’s been stuck in an unwanted situation for all these however many years. Possibly none of that is true – he could be well-satisfied with his own success, except for reading the morning headlines day after day. There each morning he receives a report of just how nasty the world is. Corporate greed extorts America. Drug cartels create havoc in the territories they claim. Nations threaten one another’s sovereignty. Another story about police violence raises questions about the trustworthiness of the law, whereas another headline about police officers being shot in the line of duty leave us wondering how they stay committed to the job in the first place. Scenarios like those paint a grim picture. Maybe you could even call it nasty.
I may not want to label this world in that way, but I can’t say there aren’t reasons why someone could draw that conclusion. This may be one of those cases where we find what we’re looking for, and can support either position with ample anecdotes or a smattering of data that reinforce our decision. The truth of the matter is that we each have to make our peace with the world around us. Like whether we’ll love, tolerate, or mostly ignore our neighbor. Or whether we’ll approach one another with a positive outlook and hope for a good connection, or begin each encounter with reserve and suspicion, taking a “guilty until proven innocent” kind of approach. I know that once I assign a negative evaluation to something, my stance towards it changes — cautious at least, perhaps even avoiding it. Certainly not wanting to endorse, engage, or support it. It would be a big deal – a huge loss, for me at least – if I decided to view the world, my community, my neighborhood as a nasty situation in which survival was my primary objective.
If the entire subject seems a bit muddy to you, don’t fret. A survey of religious responses to the world reveals a hung jury. Some work diligently to separate as much as possible. Some try to establish a playbook of how to take advantage of the good while avoiding the negative temptations that beckon. Others attempt to blend in, sort of like double agents who work both sides of the party. Sincere, well-intentioned folks have been divided on this matter for quite some time. No wonder it remains a divisive topic.
Even as I want to avoid a nasty assessment of the state of the world, I can wholeheartedly embrace the importance of encouragement as a key part of the faith experience. I recall a day during my service as a pastor when I realized the meeting I served was filled with individuals who spent their week motivated by their faith to make a positive contribution in the community. Not just on the sunny side of the street, either. Some of them rolled up their sleeves daily and dealt with heart wrenching cases in social services, counseling, health care, and the like. Sundays at the meeting were times of renewal and encouragement, feeding their souls and recharging them to resume their good work the next week. However difficult their efforts were, I don’t think I ever heard any of them speak of it as nastiness they were trying to survive. They used terms like hardship, brokenness, tragedy. Rather than a mentality of survival, they spoke of sharing light in the world, or offering hope and healing to those who were hurting, suffering, or in need. They were working to transform rather than avoid. That is a huge difference.
Speaking of flats, a memorable one occurred years ago on a Sunday morning when I’d been invited to speak at a worship service about 40 minutes from my home. Twenty minutes into the trip the ride became uneven and bumpy. Sure enough, the front tire on the driver’s side was flat. There I was, on the side of a state highway in North Carolina in a 3-piece suit, on my knees, putting on the spare. Several cars passed, but none stopped to offer help. Didn’t a guy in a suit on a Sunday look like he had somewhere to be? I didn’t need any help, but it sure would have been nice to have had some! I especially wanted to avoid arriving at my destination covered with grease and grime.
Wouldn’t it have been ironic if I arrived late to the church, I thought to myself, and one of the attendees had passed me by on the road! It would have been easy to write my own “woe is me” version of the Good Samaritan parable where I was the one in the ditch and countless ones ignored my need. From there it would be an easy step to wail about people’s insensitivity in this nasty world. More likely, everyone else had their own place to be. They weren’t ignoring my need as much as they were focused on their own plans. That line of thought doesn’t require anyone to be a villain or mean-spirited. The life that unfolds before us and around us has complicated plots and trajectories, most of which we’re unaware. Better to make our peace with the fact that not every break goes our way, not everything revolves around us at the center, and not everything beyond our control is necessarily a threat to us. Nasty or otherwise, we face the task of choosing how we will proceed. Those choices are greatly influenced by how we’ve settled questions about how we view and relate to the world around us. The photo at the beginning of this piece offers a creative suggestion – when surrounded by flats, make art! Look for a creative way to respond to those unsettling events.
Two summers ago I wound up with another flat, though this one was on my bicycle. The tire could not be repaired and I was a few miles away from the trailhead where my car was parked. Faced with the prospect of a l-o-n-g walk pushing a bike, inspiration struck. I called an Uber! Often, a quick inventory of the resources at our disposal will open a new solution to life’s flats in a way that doesn’t reduce us to playing the victim or living perpetually on the defensive. We may never sort out the answers to all of life’s niggly questions. As long as we use inflatable tires, you can be assured we will never completely be rid of life’s flats. That doesn’t mean the road is bad, or that errant nails had it in for us, or that “they” were out to get us. Flats happen – but that doesn’t have to ruin the trip!