I love taking road trips. A few summers ago, I did a solo road trip from my home in southern California, to northern Washington. I got to visit family and friends, travel to new places and listen to quite a few audio books and hours of my favorite music. I’ve made several drives up and down long stretches of the West Coast because I wanted to and I could.
Those drives become a source of individual competition – how well can I do on time? How far can I make each tank of gas go? Can I prepare well enough ahead of time that I only have to take breaks when I have to get gas, combining food and bathroom stops all in one rest stop? I end up making a great deal of the trip up as I go along, but as I’m driving, I’m planning and plotting for ways to be successful. Ways to get where I need to go in the shortest amount of time and distance possible.
Unfortunately for the part of me that thrives off of this, this mentality doesn’t transfer well to the rest of my life. I want to make a plan, do the preparation and then just bust out whatever I’m working towards. I want to find the shortest route from A to B, and then somehow manage to get there faster than anyone expected that I would. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I manage to come in ahead of schedule and feel just a little bit smug and superior because I managed something beyond what was anticipated. The overwhelming majority of my life hasn’t turned out quite like that though.
If my personal, academic and professional life has been a road trip, it’s been one filled with detours, road blocks and traffic jams. It’s been one full of having to come to terms with the fact that I am not in as much control of the timing and details of parts of my life as I want to be. The times where I’ve been able to force myself to stay on schedule and keep up with whatever grueling pace I’ve set for myself (because who needs breaks and self-care anyway) I’ve gotten to the finish line only to discover that it’s not turning out like I thought it would. As one who has prided herself on being prepared and equipped to handle every potential outcome, this has often felt like running through quicksand. It’s exhausting, disheartening and has, at times, felt like it would never end in my favor.
This never felt more apparent than last fall when I quit my job in the public health field (after completing a graduate degree in Public Health) and submitted an application to teach full-time. I just knew that teaching was where I needed to be, and what I needed to be doing. There was an opening for what looked like my dream job, and I was qualified in the subject matter. It seemed like divine timing, like I had finally found what I was supposed to be doing. I put together what I thought was an excellent syllabus, I did research and structured a basic nutrition class that I would have loved to have taken in undergrad, and submitted everything with no small amount of prayer that they would see me and the work I had done in this field, and want to give me a job.
And I waited. And waited. And waited. For 3 months, I subbed and obsessively checked my application for some sign that it’s status had changed. I watched my bank balance lower, my other full-time options get fewer and still clung to the idea that this was what I needed to do. It felt like a Gideon and the threshing floor moment. And then, in November, they just withdrew the job. They sent me an email that said that they weren’t going to hire anyone, and thanked me for applying. I was devastated. I ugly cried for a couple of days and just felt the most hopeless I had ever been about finding a way to get back on track for this path and pace I had set for myself. I experienced some devastating things in my personal life that fragmented some of the blissfully innocent ways that I viewed parts of my world and the people in it.
It was the turning point that forced me to acknowledge that maybe it wasn’t my road trip we were on after all. I had been contorting and stressing to make sure that I was doing everything I could as the driver to stay on track. It had never occurred to me that for this to work the way it was supposed to, for my yoke to be easy and my burden to be light, I had to relinquish my spot in the driver’s seat. I had to come along for the ride, even if that meant that from my perspective, it looked like we were taking the long way around.
The long way, the scenic route, in my life often makes me uncomfortable, especially when I start to get distracted by lists and schedules that tell me when I should be getting somewhere. Detours, when I can’t immediately see why I’ve got to take them, frustrate the part of me that still tries to find worth in my tangible measures of success. I am quick to forget that the scenic route is the one filled with beautiful things, things that make life richer and fuller. The trade-off for taking a little bit longer to get there is the chance to experience life worth living along the way.
It is also, in my experience, the path where God does the most outlandish things. Jobs we shouldn’t have had a chance at, serendipitous encounters we couldn’t have planned, moments that make us feel all at once precious and so very small. It’s the water that defied gravity and physics because Moses raised his staff, it’s the battle with Gideon’s army of 300, it’s the shepherd taking down the giant with a small stone, it’s the orphan teenage girl marrying an Emperor and ultimately saving a nation, it’s the man called out of captivity to rebuild the wall, it’s the single lunch feeding a crowd of thousands.
It is infinitely bigger, bolder and braver than we can imagine, because we aren’t the ones doing the creating. It isn’t always beautiful road through scenic countryside, sometimes it’s rife with uncertainty and discomfort. Sometimes it is nothing short of excruciating. I don’t pretend to speak for that season of life, but I know what it has been for me, and I know the circumstances that felt like they’d suffocate me. I know the maxed out credit cards, the empty bank accounts and the fear that it would never get better. I know the worry that I was the cause of my own misfortune and that all of the work I had done through school and in life was for nothing. I know the isolation when it seems like everyone else is living the best season of their life, while you come home to a life that is ragged and bruising.
Those moments are ugly, and make this long, windy road seem like it’s the path to nowhere. But it’s not. There’s a purpose for the path that this life, this walk with Jesus takes, and though I won’t reduce the heartache of it down to a blasé statement about how it all turns out with sunshine and butterflies, you are stronger at the end of it. You hold the precious things a little more tightly because of the loss you can’t completely forget. It can be ugly and treacherous, but it can also be astoundingly, breathtakingly beautiful. It can be full of new life, new love and new understanding.
When we will let go of what we think it’s supposed to look like, how long we think it will take us to get there, and what we think will be asked of us in the process, we reach the kind of trust that lets us be along for the ride.
I’d be lying if I said that it made you completely doubtless, if anything, it makes Mark 9:24 all that much more poignant, as the father of the dead boy says to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” We are, or at least I am, still incredibly prone to attempting to grab the wheel again. I am amazingly capable of forgetting that I am not nearly all-knowing enough to be the one who charts the course, and instead end up catching myself mid-wheel-wrench, saying, “I believe, help my unbelief”.
I don’t know where you are on your scenic route. It could be beautiful and breathtaking, or it could be the middle of the night as you are running out of gas, but I want to encourage you (and me) to trust the navigator. Trust that if the road detours a bit from the fastest route, there’s a reason for it. Trust that even when it looks dangerous, you aren’t abandoned. Trust that, even when it feels like there’s no time left to be saved, to come around the bend intact, you’ll make it out the other side. Trust that the long way around, even when it seems fruitless and disappointing, leads exactly where you’re supposed to be.