They say that you never get over your first love. And although I hate sappy statements like that, I think they have a point. Because no matter how much I try to get over him, I will always miss…
… my first car.
Yes, I know that most Americans are sentimental about their first set of wheels, and my feelings probably seem ordinary. But there was nothing ordinary about my first car. Let me explain.
My parents bought the predecessor to this once-shiny black Volvo in Sweden in 1989 and brought it with them to the States. Fast forward a few months to a snowy winter day on the highway. The brand-new Volvo breaks down, and while my mom is with baby Steffi at a nearby gas station, a Semi totals our original Swedish beauty. But thanks to insurance, we soon got an equally shiny replacement car. And thanks to Volvo’s amazing quality, that same car continued to run through my childhood, tween years, and high school until it eventually became mine. Along the way, it earned the nickname “the Black Pearl,” because like Jack Sparrow’s beloved pirate ship, this ebony auto refused to die. By the time I inherited it, the odometer read 308,228 miles—and continued to say that for the next 2.5 years because it stopped counting. And so the same Volvo that had taken me to kindergarten drove me to football games, forensics tournaments, and graduation parties.
For all its sentimental value, the Black Pearl also had its share of quirks. The air conditioning quit working when I was nine (although the heater powered through until the very end. Oh, the Swedes and their priorities.), so we used the moon roof to cool us off. That worked great… until the roof quit closing all the way and it started to leak. Kansas summers in our air-conditioning-less black Volvo became torture after we sealed off the opening. But hey, at least the windows worked!… for the next few years, that is.
But as unpleasant as summers could be, the Black Pearl’s other stories made it worthwhile. The best one happened to my dad. The Volvo had recently been to the shop (likely to have its laughable Scandinavian air conditioner looked at), and my dad needed to drive it to a conference downtown. Air conditioning aside, all was well for the first part of the trip, but then something strange happened: every time my dad turned the steering wheel to the left, the horn would honk. And this began just as he was passing through a neighborhood with some rather sketchy characters, where he needed to turn left several times. So what did he do? Smile and wave, of course. 😛
Now while I loved getting to call the Black Pearl my own, I wasn’t always sure whether this would happen. My fear had nothing to do with the car breaking down (we always knew he would last forever) or with my parents selling it (we run cars into the junk yard. In fact, when our most recent car was about to die, the mechanic said, “Let me put it like this: when it runs out of gas, it’s totaled.) No, the main concern was with me. You see, the Black Pearl had a manual transmission, and I had a very hard time learning to drive it.
The first few times my parents tried to teach me were awful, and one Sunday afternoon was especially memorable. Try as I did (for 30+ minutes), I couldn’t get the car into gear. The engine simply would not catch. I was doing all the things right: easing onto the gas and off of the clutch, but it didn’t work. My dad was frustrated, I was frustrated, and I’m sure any onlookers in the cul-de-sac were equally frustrated. It was terrible. Finally, my dad had enough of my almost-but-not-quite attempts, and he took my place in the driver’s seat. And that’s when my moment of redemption came: the whole time I’d been trying to start the car, it had been in 3rd gear, not 1st gear. As anyone who has driven a manual transmission before knows, starting in 2nd gear can happen. But getting a car to start in 3rd? Good luck with that! But luckily we figured it out, and I was able to drive the Black Pearl my senior year, always double-checking the gear first.
So besides the fact that this is a funny story—and everyone loves a drive down memory lane—why am I telling you this? Because last week I found myself in a spiritual version of that cul-de-sac and, thanks to the Lord, I also found my way out. Let me explain.
I have an absolutely wonderful life full of incredible opportunities, friendships, and sources of joy. For the last several years, God has been teaching me about the importance of a thankful heart, and I have become much more grateful as a result. Yes, I have my downs, but even in them, He usually helps me to be thankful and joyful.
But sometimes even in the midst of my wonderful life, I can start to feel discouraged and down. Because let’s face it, no matter how many gifts God has given you or awesome things you get to experience, life can also be hard. The reality of this hit me full force last week with a metaphorical tidal wave of stress, exhaustion, frustration and pressure. And no matter how hard I tried or how much other people encouraged me to, I couldn’t “thank” myself out of it. I then tried talking to Him about my frustration. While it felt good to vent a little bit, my honest prayer session didn’t offer any solution either. Fed up and frustrated, I wrestled through this for several days. And then finally on Friday morning, I woke up to the answer:
I’d been starting in the wrong spiritual “gear.”
You see, all week long I tried to kick-start my attitude through thankful and honest prayers, but it didn’t work. My heart just wouldn’t get into gear. Because although my gratitude and sincerity were good, on their own they weren’t enough. Why? Because I had skipped over first gear: having a right view of God.
This, my friends, is the key to a fulfilling and fruitful spiritual life. If we don’t consciously recognize God in all His power, holiness, goodness, etc., then our most heroic attempts to obey Him will come up short. He must be the foundation of all we think, say, do, and hope to become. Only once we see Him in His proper place–sovereign and reigning over all things–can we have an accurate view of our circumstances and a thankful heart toward them.
The Scriptures capture this perfectly with words like “but as for me” and “yet.” In many of these passages, the writers begin with an assessment of their (often bad) circumstances and end with an affirmation of their faith. And running through and between the lines of all these verses is an understanding of who God is, along with His mercy, sovereignty and love. Yes, each time involves a conscious decision. But these decisions are only possible in light of the Lord Himself.
And so although my circumstances haven’t changed at all, my heart toward them has. By His grace, I’m now praying that He would put me in “1st gear” by giving me a right view of Him.
… or at least as “right” a view as I can get on this side of those black pearly gates. 😉