That New Car Smell

“That New Car Smell,” Bob Ryder


“The journey is the destination.” Anonymous proverb

“If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

Yesterday as America paid her last respects to Senator John McCain, we were offered a renewed invitation to cultivate unity in the pursuit of high ideals, and an example of forbearance and cooperation in the midst of deeply held political and social differences. As family, friends and colleagues gathered in the National Cathedral for his memorial service, they were joined by politicians and from both sides of the aisle.  As part of the memorial, President Obama shared this thought about Senator McCain having asked him to offer a eulogy alongside President Bush…

“…What better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience. And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground.  John and I could not have been more different. We’re of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father. John was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool — John, not so much. We were standard-bearers of different American political traditions, and throughout my presidency, John never hesitated to tell me when he thought I was screwing up — which by his calculation was about once a day. But for all our differences, for all of the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand, the long-standing admiration that I had for him. By his own account, John was a rebellious young man. In his case, that’s understandable — what faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of admirals than to mutiny. Eventually, though, he concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself.”

Early on in Susan’s and my ministry here, I volunteered with the Outdoor Adventure Program at Illinois State University.  Excursions were organized on the principle of “common adventures” in which everyone participates with equal responsibility for meeting their own needs as well as the needs of the group as a whole – a profound model for organizing an activity.  I enjoyed dozens of great outings with wonderful people going hiking, canoeing, spelunking, white water rafting, and winter camping.  Our travels took us from the depths of Illinois Caverns to the top of Pike’s Peak, and from remote wilderness at the Texas / Mexico border to the neon glare of the Las Vegas Strip (a side trip when our Virgin River campsite flooded during a heavy storm).  On virtually every trip, there would be moments when the group would stop whatever activity we were engaged in to compare notes, check that everyone was together and safe, inventory supplies, ask directions if need be, and adjust the plan as required or summon the resolve to carry on.  We experienced the triumphs of well executed plans, the frustrations of disabled vehicles, the rewards of taking calculated risks, and the faith-renewing kindness of strangers.  We worked through conflicts and dug deep for ingenuity in the inevitable pinch.  Looking back on my experiences in the program from most of 20 years after, I realize that as rewarding as any wilderness experience were the adventures of building community among people drawn together in common purpose.  As that anonymous proverb insists, the journey was the destination.

Now and then our worship planning team designates a Sunday for Susan or I to choose whatever reflection topic we deem suitable for that morning.  Today is one of those occasions, and it seems like a good opportunity to consider our aspirations as a spiritual community.  Think of this morning as one of those brief interludes for taking stock on a common adventure.  The occasion isn’t merely a pause between the conclusion of our “Life’s Big Questions” series and the “Jesus Seminar on the Road” lectures coming up.  It’s an apt moment to check signals as we approach some conversation to be had soon about our location needs.  The Steering Committee is preparing an update next month about their work evaluating our needs and preferences and realistic options for worship and meeting space. It will be the kind of conversation that elicits strong convictions and feelings, as it should.  So with that on the near horizon – let’s refresh our thinking about the nature of this common adventure we refer to as New Covenant Community, and the habits of grace and forbearance and generosity we cultivate together to navigate our sojourns.

One of the adventures I helped coordinate with the Outdoor Adventure Program was a whitewater rafting excursion on the Chama River in New Mexico.  I’d been there before and knew the both the water and the scenery to be exquisitely beautiful.  Having driven over a thousand miles to get to the put in, we learned that the Bureau of Land Management had decided that morning to stop water releases from the dam that maintained the current, and the river wasn’t navigable.  My fellow travelers and I were all sorely disappointed. I was sick about it, actually, having built up the beauty of the river numerous times.  Plan B – we made some phone calls, packed up our gear, and got a permit for the San Juan River in Utah, several hours away.  The landscape is different but no less beautiful, and the day seemed to be saved.  That is until we discovered that the same drought which suspended dam releases in New Mexico had minimized the current on the San Juan to barely a trickle.  Beautiful though the scenery was, the exhilarating whitewater experience we’d signed up for was reduced to a 3 day muddy slog during which the mood of the group was not so cheerful.  We finally got off the river, cleaned our gear as best we could, packed, and began the long drive home.

That night, sometime around 1:00 or 1:30am, we discovered the gas gauge in the rental van we’d hired wasn’t working.  The needle was stuck on 5/8s full, but the tank was empty, and we found ourselves stranded on the shoulder of a remote Utah state highway.  There was very little traffic on that road, no cell service, and something like 20 miles to the nearest town.  As it happened, we broke down at the crest of a hill that allowed us to see one lonely vehicle approaching from a few miles away.  It took several minutes from the time we first saw the headlights until it got to where we were, and presumably they could see our hazard lights blinking from a fair distance, too, because they seemed like they planned to stop, pulling over practically before we’d had a chance to wave and indicate our predicament. Well it turned out to be a group of Mexican workers on their way to a job somewhere in Colorado where they’d found work doing drywall and painting for a new housing subdivision.  The driver spoke little English, but gestured for a couple of us to climb in the back of the van where 6 or 7 of his friends and family we’re curled up asleep on the floor.  The trip to town took about 20 minutes, during which the crew woke up and shared coffee and sandwiches with us.  I knew just barely enough Spanish to introduce myself and say thank you, but the words were unnecessary.  We’d been rescued by a van filled the kindest and most decent people you’d ever hope to meet. We got to a gas station, bought a couple of 5-gallon cans, filled them at the pumps, and made our way over to say thanks and farewell before figure out a ride back to our group.  The driver looked at us curiously and just said “vamanos.” He gave us a ride back to our van, shook our hands and continued on his way.  Not long after we were back on our own way, one of my fellow adventurers who’d been fairly open about his disappointments up to then, looked to me from the shotgun seat bone tired, hungry, badly in need of a shower and said, “This is the best road trip I’ve ever been on.”

One of the mementos I’ll keep as a token of our congregation’s journey is a snapshot of NCC’s values.  Recently, the steering committee considered some bullet point priorities of our congregational life as particularly important for thinking about who we are and where we gather.  The list includes…

  • Acting on issues of social justice. Provide support in our budget for social justice causes.
  • Appreciating diversity; accepting people of different backgrounds and traditions.
  • Employing pastor(s) who are effective speakers; able to articulate our progressive faith perspective and assist in the spiritual development of members/friends.
  • Work toward financial stability and stewardship growth.
  • Provide easy access to our community (parking, advertising, social media, signage, visibility)
  • To increase our work with children and youth.
  • Bring new members/friends into the community.
  • Respond to and care for the needs of members/friends.
  • A space that is viable for the long-term future of NCC.

Now it probably won’t surprise anyone when I say there are times when being a pastor for this or any congregation is frustrating.  I feel no hesitation about saying so because I know being a member of this or any congregation has its frustrations, too.  It’s true of any job or organization.  It takes longer than we’d like to make decisions.  It takes longer than we’d like to schedule meetings.  We often disagree on important details of our ministry. Almost all of us know in our hearts that if we were in charge as benign dictator for just a little while things would get things done faster and for the better and everyone would thank us before long.  Still, the joys and satisfactions of this community have always vastly outweighed its challenges, and that list of priorities by which the steering committee has chosen to guide our thinking about where best to be us is among my highlights. Just cataloging our collective aspirations to be generous and hospitable and look beyond our own needs helped me remember what I value about being us and where we’re trying to go together, however slow or fast we drive.  It was one of those useful pauses on the journey of common adventures reminding me that the journey is the destination.

Stay with me a moment as I pivot to a slightly different metaphor.  Most of us have had the experience of buying a car at some point. You consider your current ride and how expensive maintenance is likely to become as years and mileage add up. You consider what you’ll need from your next a vehicle, whether it’s basic transportation or towing a trailer, good mileage, something safe for the family, or lots of room for equipment, or a comfortable ride for the office carpool, maybe a DVD player to keep the kids entertained on long trips.  You figure out your budget and maybe do some online research comparing options.  Well, at some point you go to a dealership and start looking at actual vehicles.  Then it happens, that instant you finally climb into a vehicle that that might be a prospect and you breath in that new car smell – it’s clean and crisp and full of promise.  All the problems and disappointments and mishaps that accumulated with your current car fade into the past.  My own car generally smells of pool chlorine from my gym bag and a variety of connoisseur dog treats.  There are usually nose prints on the windows.  And that new car smell has a way of making you set aside all your carefully thought out priorities and just get out your checkbook and make a down payment.  The peculiar allure we refer to as “new car smell” is well-known.  The scent comes from a combination of adhesives that bind layers of plastic together and chemicals used in manufacturing the carpet and treating the leather and vinyl. It dissipates naturally over a few months.  But it’s known by auto dealers to be such a reliably attractive feature that they sometimes spray small amounts of the chemicals into used vehicles to reestablish that new car smell.  It just makes you want to buy.

The steering committee had a version of that experience this summer when we looked at a building as part of our research, sort of a test-test drive.  A church building was for sale over near the airport, and I think most of us swooned a little when we got inside.  It’s light and roomy, has some offices that could be rented out to worthy community groups.  NICE PARKING LOT!  A few of us were fixin’ to drive it home and show it to the family, take you all out for a spin!

Now I’m not saying that building was wrong for us – it might have been sweet ride for the right price.  But I can tell you that the most important priority of processing it carefully as a community got a little bit lost in that new car smell.  So it’s probably not all bad that another buyer made an offer and it’s off the market for now.  What I’m driving at in all this is that the quality of our relationships is at the heart of our congregation.  The big picture values we’re working on together and our dedication to one another in pursuing them is what needed to determine our home, here or elsewhere. The best of who we are doesn’t depend on gathering in any particular address, and no particular address will compensate for being less than kind and cooperative as we make our way forward.

Next month the Steering Committee will bring you all up to date about where we are in our process, and invite you help us discern our next steps. As President Obama observed in eulogizing Senator McCain yesterday, “…He concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself.”  That’s a beautiful and succinct way to say it, and I hope it might be true of what we’re working on together as we find our way forward.