Becoming a Pilgrim in the Slow Lane

What did the Delaware driver who paid extra for their license plate to say “REMEMBR” want me to recall when they chose those letters for the back of their car? Did they want me to remember Jesus? Because I did. I remembered him like a flood. His face was engraved on the back of that semi-truck in the northbound lanes of 95. He had a crown of thorns and was drawn in a kind of tattoo style. There was four feet of Jesus’ face between his bearded chin and the curly top of his head.

On the first day of my commute to seminary in Princeton, New Jersey from West Philadelphia, as I was making the wide left where the Vine Street Expressway gives way to Northbound I-95, I fell in line behind this trucker drawn Jesus and decided to follow. The driver was going slow — slow enough to completely change my commuter mindset — slow enough for me to become a pilgrim in the slow lane.

It was a complete whim, completely arbitrary, but this chance encounter with a giant Jesus completely changed those commuting years. Several times a week, every solo northbound trip for three years, was completely silent. I kept the radio off. I didn’t play any music. I consciously turned the commute into a pilgrimage, and it all started with a “why not?” I don’t think I had too many revelations in the car. The practice was not immediately “effective”, but it marked me. I know this because when I shut off the radio a couple of weeks ago at the end of my now Southbound commute on 95 and at the same moment received the license plate commandment, “REMEMBR,” I immediately remembered Jesus’ face and the silent pilgrimages of my seminary days.

This reminded me of the power of spiritual practices, and how essentially arbitrary they are as they begin. Rituals start as nothing but intention, and they become much more than could ever be intended. The two way communication that we share with God using our rituals becomes much more than whatever it is. What began as an arbitrary choice transforms with use and time. The thread becomes a cord; the cord becomes a rope; the rope becomes a bridge, the swinging planks become a four lane highway. What was tenuous becomes a reliable path, one that can be traveled even after we stop driving that car, or commuting in that direction.

Rituals get into our bones. Maybe our spirits are Pavlovian, maybe our hearts aren’t as plastic as they seem, maybe our loves whisper echoes forever beneath the louder lights of the Shouting Now. Whatever the reason, we might as well rely on this very human peculiarity. What we do daily is powerful. Any season in which we transcend the fickle, consumer-driven, variety cravings of our wanton hearts and minds will mark us. A spiritual practice leaves a permanent divot in our souls; an indentation which could easily begin to flow with living water, sometimes without any new decision of our own.

I think this is what happened to me when the Delaware license plate said “REMEMBR.” In my life, driving in a car behind cars had been imbued with meaning, so the leap was nothing more than a shuffle. My heart is easily tipped in God’s direction. A powerful awareness of God’s peace and presence is at the ready around many bends. I read “REMEMBR” and grooves of memory conspired with those spiritual divots in my soul to make me sit with Jesus, just as he had instructed us, hands gripping ten and two instead of bread and cup, but remembering his death and longing for his return, just the same.

And so a word of praise:

Ridiculous as it seems to find you
In all things and almost every place,
I’m finding while not seeking — this you do —
And, oh! it makes me GLAD in uppercase!
It was so simple at the start and I
Did not know what of it would come, or come
Not anything at all — and yet, oh my,
You might as well have struck me wholly dumb!
You’re here, and there, and under that you are,
You’re nearer than I ever knew by far!

Dear friends, the Lord is near. See if you can’t make some divots in your souls today, tomorrow and the next day. I don’t think it matters what it is. We’re softer than we seem, and God is much more willing to cooperate with our very arbitrary ideas for connection than we presume.

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