I went home recently and found out that everything you need to know about life can be learned on the stretch of road between Willow Grove, Pa. and Woonsocket, R.I. This is scarcely strange since not only is life like a journey, with a beginning and an end, but everything in creation is a metaphor in some way or other.
For starters, Christians always travel in fundamentally hospitable terrain since we are always in our Father's world. The trees that streaked past my window are all His. (Narnia notwithstanding, none have gone over to the White Witch's side.)
Moreover, I could look at the trees and say, "Ah, yes, I know what you are. There are men who can tell better than I about your phylogeny and photosynthesis and capillary action, but they have said nothing true about the tree until they know whence, and by Whom, a tree comes. I, Christian traveler, know 'treeness.'"
On the New Jersey turnpike I exceeded the speed limit like everyone else. The signs say 65; my speedometer hovered around 72. I, Christian traveler, wanted to justify myself-"have to keep up with the flow"-but I felt a strange disconnect, a fissure between reason and truth. And a sneaking suspicion that the deliberate undermining of a particular law tends to generalize like a spreading ink blot to lawkeeping in general.
On the Cross Bronx Expressway, every speedometer, the righteous and the unrighteous, plunged to 5 mph-though I had timed this trip to avoid New York City rush hour, and it was well past 7 p.m. Anyone who believes a person's private choices are his own business has never been part of a grounded caravan of several hundred cars with their destinies altered by a "private" choice about two miles up the road. The cause became clear a half hour later: Bronco carcass in the passing lane, spun around like a toy so it faced the wrong direction; another crumpled vehicle at some distance. Perhaps the Bronco was racing to a Rangers game; perhaps the other car was headed home to see the folks, like me. Appointments never to be kept: "... on that very day their plans come to nothing" (Psalm 146:4).
The scene also showed that, as Ecclesiastes 9:11 records, "the race is not to the swift ... but time and chance happen to them all." Wasn't that the punch line of the Woody Allen film I saw recently? "Chance," of course, is the perspective "under the sun"; the Christian traveler, the one who knows trees, also knows something of sovereignty.
And knows all men too. It always strikes me that wherever I may roam, even if to "darkest, deepest Africa," I can know something significantly true of every man I meet, right off the bat. Seems trite, perhaps, but there was a time when I had no idea. In my locust-eaten years without God, when everything was possible, it was possible that the next person to walk up to me was something totally new in the universe-a being perfect, sinless, and the direct channel to mystical enlightenment.
Near Darien, Conn., I stopped to pump gas. I looked at a man pumping gas behind me and knew: Here is a most wonderful creature, an image-bearer of God.... And here is a sinner.
That sinner, however, did not rob me, although it was night, and I was alone with two sleeping kids, and he could easily get away with it. Nor did the teenage boy who handed me my Kids' Meal at the Drive-thru spit in my fries, though he would never see me again.
That led me to think about "common grace" and how although men are totally depraved they are not absolutely depraved. Paul is right: The Spirit restrains the world from being as corrupt as it could be (2 Thessalonians 2:7).
When I arrived home-or is Pennsylvania home?-the lesson, alas, is the same one I learned last year, and the year before: that all earthly homes produce as much longing as satisfaction, are signposts and not the city itself. And I thanked God both for the foretaste and the vague yearning that keeps me headed homeward, keeps my heart set on pilgrimage.