There it was – glaring into the night sky to be seen from miles around reflecting off the clouds, looking from a distance like the horizon was ablaze. As our old Chevy navigated the empty mountain interstate, it seemed as if every curve and undulating hill brought us closer to that looming inferno. Closer and closer we came – the piercing light became more and more distinct until it became apparent that it’s source was just off the interstate ahead – just off the next exit. It was nearing time for a break anyway, and the planned stop was still miles ahead through the night. Surely with all that illumination there must be a place to rest and refresh, so we slowed and pointed that weary Impala toward the beckoning glow. There, right beside the road, was the biggest neon sign this mountain boy had ever seen on what appeared to be a warehouse-sized megastore of epic proportions. The size of a drive-in movie screen with flashing reds, whites, and blues, the sign invited motorists from just across the border of the fireworks-free neighboring state to ease on across the line and stock up on every manner of contraband. It was the sort of place where otherwise law-abiding citizens with out of state tags would nonchalantly slip inside, load up, and nervously reach for the left blinker on the way back to the land of the mother hens. This night however, the parking lot was empty and the place was boarded up tight. It was the days before universal McDonaldization of every interstate exit, so there was no late night burger joint to offer their facilities, no well lit convenience store at which to gas up and find relief – only that blasted flashing sign! What had been a distant promise of respite had become a vulgar neon siren, luring us from the steady progress of the high-speed interstate connection on which our source and destination had been clearly and carefully mapped only to suffer the ignominy of full bladders, empty stomachs, and that insufferable venus flytrap of a sign. To top it all off, a quick peek around the side revealed that the building whose front was festooned with that awful empty promise was about the size of a doublewide trailer – it was all smoke and no fire!
Such is, in microcosm, one of the perils of travelling….and living. The noted theologian Erma Bombeck once presciently noted that the grass is always greener over the septic tank [sic]. Simply put, decisions about change should never be left to perception alone, but must be carefully and prayerfully made in light of promises made along the way and faithful to the course laid out before the journey began. The finish line does not move with us!
One of the most gratifying parts of a drive to the Mexican city of Monterrey is something they call the ‘autopista’. The first time I drove it, I thought I’d died and gone to gearhead heaven. Basically, you pay to get on like any good toll road, snug up your seatbelt, and stab the right pedal until you get to the other end just outside metro-Monterrey an hour or so and about a hundred miles later, all the while being unceremoniously passed right and left by all manner of conveyances on the verge of light speed with nary a Federale in sight. What I appreciated most (besides the grin-inducing specter of a Ford V-8 at max output) was the fact that there were only a handful of exits along the way. You get on the autopista to go to Monterrey with few to no off-ramps or distractions.
A life well lived in service to the Lord and in pursuit of purpose is defined by scripture as a race (Hebrews 12:1 et al), one with a defined beginning and a tangible tape across the finish line. Unfortunately, the history of men is replete with those who see the twinkle of some spurious off-ramp sign along the way and are wooed into scratching some temporary itch in the light of it’s glow. All too often upon further inspection, the parking lot is empty, the product doesn’t live up to the promise, and the time expended investigating the pretty lights puts a man laps-down in the race at a minimum, and keeps him from finishing well…or even from finishing at all! Isaiah prophetically spoke in the voice of the Master, describing his resoluteness and the clarity of his own journey –
7“For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.” Isaiah 50:7
Since the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, the narrative of temptation and distraction has permeated our storyline, and the literature of every culture only changes the characters, but never the ominous warning. True happiness and fulfillment, true self-actualization, can only come when a person is aware of who they are, why they are here, and what they are here to accomplish. Short of that, we’re all just a bunch of beleaguered nomads waiting for one of those off-ramps to finally lead somewhere good. The good news is that the information we need is available to us – for free! The foundation of discipleship is the understanding that we are in a real-time relationship with the Guy who made the map in the first place, and that we can trust Him to keep what we commit to Him until we break that tape at the finish line for ourselves (2 Timothy 1:12). Only when we learn to listen to Him in prayer, study His roadmap, and stay true to His instructions do we hope to be able to avoid the lure of the next unscheduled off-ramp.