Saturday, January 3, 2009

Man and machine

I started my car this afternoon and drove off as I always did down the familiar ramps of my car park and after a couple of turns, I realized strangely that my vehicle was veering off to the left as if drawn by some mysterious force. As I released my steering wheel, I saw it swiveling in the same direction as if turned by a phantom hand. Oh oh, I thought to myself; my steering alignment has gone whacky, which means another costly visit to the workshop.

But when I got out to check the car, I discovered that my left frontal tyre was flat as a doormat. That explains why I had to fight the vehicle’s compulsion to keep running off to the left like a dog pulling against a leash.

The only thing I could do was to bring the errant car back to “port” and fix the tyre. But as I stood there staring at the deflated wheel of my otherwise perfect ride, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated by the inconvenience; especially since I was on my way to keeping an appointment. And then the thought hit me. I remembered driving up a curb a week back and the little bump must’ve inflicted more damage than I expected. Strange that it took so long for the air to slip out.

In the same way, many of us pick up injuries to our souls and our hearts that we often don’t notice or only imagine to be tiny bumps along the way. Months and years later, we suddenly find ourselves broken down on the road of life, stranded, surprised and perhaps even alarmed at the state of our disrepair. And unlike cars, we often hide the bruises and injuries of our accidents far better, so well in fact that some of us spend a lifetime oblivious to the scars, dents and scraped metal we accumulate through days, weeks and months of careless driving.

Yet sooner or later…we all break down when these collective abuses remain ignored and untreated.

Every few thousand miles, we’re told to bring the car in for servicing; to let the professionals do a thorough checkup and fix what needs to be fixed. Ever so often, we need to do the same for our souls and our hearts.

I’m always amazed by people who say, “I have no sin, I have nothing to confess, I don't need to ask forgiveness for anything”, especially since “I haven’t killed, hurt or cheated anybody in a big way.”

That’s like saying I’m not concerned about the state of my car from all the daily grind, stress and speed abuses I put it through because I didn’t try to jump through a ring of fire, or drive it into a wall, or compete in a demolition derby.

The fact is, we do need to be conscious of our thoughts, our moral choices, our attitudes and struggles, and our present state of soul if we want to save ourselves from breakdowns and accidents that are almost always the cumulative fruits of small sins of selfishness and pride.

The Lord tells us that if we are faithful in little things, we will be faithful in big things as well. In the same way, if we neglect to rid ourselves of little faults, they will grow into bigger faults that can one day lock our steering wheel in life, and drive us to the edge of disaster if we do not recognize them for what they are. Even the biggest chains that haul anchor on a ship are made of smaller links bound together. What more the chains of sin and sadness that bind a soul to despair over years of indifference and apathy?

Thankfully, regular maintenance for our soul is cheap and easy. All it takes is some humility and the will to return to Christ amidst all the hard rides and cheap thrills of life.

A few minutes of prayer each day talking to our heavenly father, a short passage of scripture, regular confession or at least an examination of conscience, and the super unleaded fuel of the Eucharist at mass...these are all freebies given to you with unlimited generosity so that you may avail yourself of the best maintenance and repair work for your soul always. Your moral windshields are cleaned so that you may see better the roads you should take, your tyres are inflated so that your journey might be smooth and safer, your engine is finely tuned to give you excellent performance in the race for eternal happiness, and your seatbelts are checked to ensure that you are safely strapped in despite the bumps and obstacles of life.

But some of us might feel that going to church, praying and giving that little more attention to our spiritual lives is unnecessary, boring and tedious. And yet if I told you there really was a car servicing station that offered you all these amazing services for free, you would put the pedal to the metal and be the first to queue in line for the good of your car. Your soul my friend is far more precious than your car.

Indeed, the bad habits we maintain each day can easily damage our steering alignment over time and cause us to keep veering off the right track in life and lead us ever further from happiness and fulfillment. Each one of us has a couple of flat tyres in our lives that need some attention. Make a decision today to get yours fixed before they continue to drive you away from everything that is true and good.

Incidentally, I’ve never actually replaced a flat tyre before. So as I stood staring at the flattened rubber tubing hugging my rim, I was very much tempted to just call for help. It would be a cinch; the guy would come in his tow truck, jack up the car, remove the wounded wheel and replace it with the spare in less time than it would take me to figure out which was the jack in the first place. And I would be $50 poorer of course.

But something told me I had to do this myself, or at least make the effort without being crushed to death under my own ride. And so I rolled up my sleeves (figure of speech of course since I was wearing a t-shirt) and got right down to it. I found the jack, found where to winch it, found the tools to loosen the nuts and bolts, and struggled like the ultimate wimp that I was to unscrew the tortured wheel. But it just wouldn’t budge.

Lots of grunting, groaning and wheezing later, I was ready to give up and call the toll free number for a mechanic. But something stopped me and persuaded me to keep trying despite the stinging sweat in my eyes and “the bolts that would not be turned”. After kicking, stomping and basically trying to do the River Dance on the poor spanner attached to the bolts, they finally gave and started to loosen up. After that it was easy. The bolts came off, the wheel was dragged off, and the spare was replaced with ease and tightened up by another frantic encore of the River Dance.

For someone who has trouble changing a light bulb, I was pretty darn pleased with myself. I had learnt something new about my own capabilities. I could be as manly as any guy, I had hair on my chest, I could change a tyre!!! (Ok the middle part wasn’t true.)

2008 wasn’t really a good year for me. In fact, many things in my life seemed to have a steering alignment problem and kept veering off the road no matter how much I tried keeping my hopes and dreams on course. And often, it was extremely frustrating and discouraging when I didn’t know the reasons why. 

Often too, I was tempted to stop praying; which seemed such an herculean effort when nothing appeared to change and God seemed deaf to my pleas. But now and then, I would be nudged gently by the soft voice of providence to try again, to not give up on the bolts that wouldn't budge, to press my spiritual muscles to the spanner of my hopes because I really can change the flat tyres of my heart. I just need to believe I can, and there's no other way to learn how to do so than by doing it. There's no other way to learn the power of faith and prayer than to believe and pray with perseverance, despite the aching muscles and pouring sweat.

The point of this story is; God often allows difficult things to happen to us because he wishes to draw us out of ourselves. He loves us too much to let us stay in mediocrity, and even though we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the pain, rejections and disappointments of life, God whispers in our ears, “Do not be afraid”. Do not be afraid to hope in God. Do not be afraid to try. Do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid to forgive and let go. Do not be afraid to seek and accept forgiveness. Do not be afraid to dream and hope still. Do not be afraid to open your heart. Do not be afraid to live. Do not be afraid to love. Do not be afraid to trust in God still, for He is with you always.

In the crosses we carry, the burdens we bear, the pains we suffer…sometimes it’s human and natural to doubt, to wonder if God is a mean schoolmaster trying to teach us a lesson. Perhaps he is. Not as a nasty disciplinarian without sympathy, but as a most loving father with deep compassion for our needs. And perhaps…it’s also a lesson we desperately need to learn for our own good, for our own dignity…and for our own happiness.