By Gary Benton
There’s nothing particularly spiritual about buying a used car. At best it’s a slog of papers, backroom conferences, and feigned friendliness. At worst it’s a tour of humanity’s worst impulses and inclinations.
Almost a month into my latest car-buying experience I was experiencing the latter. Now, I’m a quick decision maker to a fault—not one at all to shop around and consider other options. No FOMO here. I had been ready to pull the trigger, and yet, car after car that caught my eye had fallen through. Issues getting a loan, miscommunication between salesmen, even one unexpectedly hostile negotiation. On repeat I experienced little bits of falling in love followed by getting my hopes dashed. It was exhausting.
Despite my initial claim that car buying is not a particualrly spiritual matter, this is a story about Jesus. Smack dab in the middle of a—mundane at best and torturous at worst—car search, I encountered Jesus speaking directly to me, and the message I heard just might be for all of us.
So the car my wife and I had both been drawn toward was the Hyundai Elantra. Definitely a sensible choice—even at just a few years old, it cost less than many used cars much older. It is super gas efficient, reliable, well rated. The only problem was I hated it. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, I just didn’t find it very inspiring. I wanted something with some combination of unique, quirky, edgy, or stylish. I seriously considered an old BMW, a beat-up Chrysler sports car, a local beater of a Jaguar, and I even found the exact model of Civic I’d driven in high school. I seemed to be attracted to every kind of car besides the one we had settled on.
My discontent had to be, at least somewhat, attached to the fact that my wife Amanda recently—and quite miraculously—became the proud owner of her dream car, a Chrysler Town and Country, a real road-tripper with screens for kids and space to throw whatever we wanted in and just go at a moments notice. That car became ours less than a year earlier when we were looking at a more sensible choice. Now I wanted my Town and Country moment, but couldn’t even figure out what my dream car would be and what that moment would look like.
This is where my story gets really interesting, at least to me. The end of one car-buying trip I took coincided with a present that Amanda had bought me for my birthday—a soak in a “sensory deprivation tank”. I drove to the soak place exhausted, discouraged, beaten down. I had never been in one of these sensory deprivation tanks before, and hoped it would be relaxing and would distract me from my frustration. What I got proved a little stranger than that, and a little bit more profoundly refreshing.
For those of you who have no idea what a “sensory deprivation tank” is, it’s basically a space-age looking tub with a lid, filled with saltwater that buoys you up and lets you float around in your preferred degree of darkness and silence for an hour. I went full dark, full quiet.
As I adjusted to the fact that my eyes weren’t adjusting—that it really was that fully dark, like the inside of a cave—I began to have strange thoughts. I became hyper-aware of my body in the absence of external stimulation. I could feel and hear it when I swallowed; I could feel each neck vertebrae stretching and twisting, my glands and muscles and skin flaps all moving and shifting in tandem. In the relative silence I could hear all the whumming and bubbling of the organic machinery I call my body. Then, I began to think about what else was here with me in the tank. My mind, built of 29 years of memories, experiences, choices, relationships. Full of books and poetry and endless articles and losses and joys, new locations and old routines. Uniquely mine, but always changing. None of this felt particularly spiritual, just meditative. And then I heard a still small voice in the back of my mind.
“You’re a Hyundai Elantra”
Now, I’ll freely admit that much of what follows might have been the products of my own tired and wandering brain, but I’m also convinced that in that tank in that moment, Jesus took the opportunity to speak into my mind for a minute and minister to me. Take it as you will.
“What?” I asked, the darkness. This was certainly not an insight I’d been expecting.
“You’re a Hyundai Elantra” came the thought again. “You’re young, still starting off. You’ve had some experiences, but not many. You’ve had some successes, but nothing terribly impressive. You have your own uniqueness, but you’re not as terribly individual as you wish to be.” It continued, “And yet, who you are now seems to be the last thing you want to be. Think of all those other cars that captured your heart. Those are cars for people in different life stages - well into their career, or retirement, or back in high school on loan from your parents. Those are cars for people who are younger, older, richer, poorer. The person you wish you were already, and the person you feel like you lost.”
“And yet,” came that voice again into the back of my mind, “I only love the you that is. When I say I love you, I don’t mean I love some idea of you - some platonic ideal or design that you were supposed to be, or that you might attain to some day. Loving the idea of someone isn’t loving them at all, ever. I love the you that’s floating in this tank, the you formed by the infinitely complex and messy confluence of your own and other’s choices, of my sovereign hand in your life but also the real and tangible effects of sin and of a world in chaos. This is what I do. Ever since the fall I’ve been in the business of loving everything as it is—it was either that or forsake it all completely. My love for you is real love - not love for my own idea of you. You can’t be the kid you were. And who knows exactly who and what you’re becoming. Both of those are abstracts, just concepts. But I love you as you are right now, and I hope you can allow yourself to feel loved as you are.”
Needless to say, I bought the Elantra. It’s blue and smells a little like cigarettes and looks kinda goofy, just like me. We named it sharkbait.
I hope you enjoyed the trippiness of this experience as much as I did, but more so I hope that you can hear God’s voice speaking the same message to you. I think it’s as true for you as it is for me. God’s in the business of loving and naming and cherishing His creation, just as it is right now. There’s no other world, there’s no other you. There’s a lot of possibility, but who knows what will be and when. For now, we can be thankful that our God’s overflowing love and attention isn’t being reserved for imagined perfection, but is right now gently pursuing us, waiting for a quiet moment to remind us that we are His joy, and He is our portion, and that that is a very good thing.
Do you find yourself like me sometimes longing for former days—maybe days when you seemed to have it more together, or days when you were more free than you are today. Maybe like me you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about a future you—and fearing that you may never reach that potential. With our focus in the past and future we often reject ourselves in the present—the very “us” that God has accepted.
Can I invite you into a simple awareness exercise today. Begin by finding stillness, even right now, where-ever you are. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes perhaps, and settle into stillness. Then take a look at you. Your life. Today. In an open and non-judgemental way look over your life and the circumstances of it—your job, your relationships, your accomplishments, or seeming lack there of, your home, your possessions, your spiritual state, your personal character growth and maturity. In your minds eye, see this person—see you as you are—and dare to accept this person, warts and all. Take time with this. No need to rush here. There may be things about you that aught to change, but the need to change need not hinder you from being loved as you are in this moment. Jesus loves you this way.