Saturday, July 26, 2014


"The preacher was driving so fast, the speedometer was playing “Nearer My God To Thee.” (author unknown)

When I was seventeen I had a green-and-white 1957 Ford V-8.  The speedometer topped out at “120 mph,” so of course I had to see if it could really do that. Finding a stretch of road straight and long enough in the Black Hills posed a challenge, but I found one, and it did. (I wonder how many otherwise conventional young lives have been cut short by just such one-time shenanigans.) My younger brother reminds me that I once boasted, “I can take any curve in the hills at twice the posted speed!”

I was no rebel with or without a cause. I was a seventeen-year-old-boy with one of the most powerful machines on the planet at my feet and fingertips. (Other former seventeen-year-old boys will no doubt relate.) And my purpose here is not to engage in nostalgic braggadocio, but to acknowledge with relief that I made it through that period, and to observe that I abandoned my seventeen-year-old approach to driving… about three years ago.

That’s when I got the letter from the insurance company. The letter—in the cold language of cost-benefit analysis used by the company to determine if it was in their best interest to continue to carry me as a client—basically said, “Enough already!” And I got the message.

I want to be clear that I have not been a willfully reckless speedster or that guy who rushes to weave in front of you and then cuts you off. I have never been a road-rager. (I am a gentle preacher, dear reader.) It is just that, for the last fifty years, I have consistently pushed the meaning of “limit” in “speed limit.” (Again, I have no doubt that other former seventeen-year-olds will relate.) The driving record that the insurance letter kindly pointed out to me consisted of one too many speeding citations in a defined period of time, plus a couple of self-caused fender-benders involving only my car (claims that, in hindsight, I should probably never have submitted to the insurance company for payment). Oh, and the incident with the Christmas tree. The company seemed to have no interest in my lucid and exculpatory explanations. “Enough already.”

I am reluctant to acknowledge it, but it’s possible that the behavior-altering message got through in part because some of those seventeen-year-old fires have been damped down by actual maturity. (Okay, “aging.”) I simply no longer have the need to speed. In addition, the letter spoke to the theologian in me: In my tradition, Martin Luther explains that one of the uses of “the law” is as “a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works for good.”  The insurance company—like a speed limit—is not interested in spoiling my fun, but in assuring that life—for me and everyone with whom I share the road—will be “good.”

(To the seventeen-year-olds and future seventeen-year-olds who are dear to us, perhaps we could do a better job of connecting this life-affirming explanation of the “spirit of the law” to the letter of the law. Like that parental line that can be honestly applied in so many situations: “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t care what you did.”)*

Coincidentally about the same time that I heard from my insurance company, I had a Zen-like vision that I have found helpful and that I reflect on surprisingly often: A car pulling into the flow of traffic is like a twig falling into a stream. It is not in a race with the other twigs. You go with the flow.

And I’ve developed two mantras that are effective for me—
The ride of the gentle preacher today--a sweet Subaru 4-
cylinder. But I sometimes wish I had put that '57 Ford up
on blocks in a shed somewhere. (Don't we all.)
that I actually use: One is, “When I’m in a hurry, that’s when I slow down.” The other is, “Let the other guy have the ticket.” That last one is not very Christian, I know. But it works for me.

* Studies of brain development suggest that, regarding issues like driving, sex, and war-fighting, we aren't equipped to make rational decisions--to "know what we're doing"--until about age 25, as discussed further here.

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