Ministry training time arrived. I couldn’t afford an expensive plane flight from Cleveland to southern California. Nor did I want to endure a cheap, but sub-human bus ride across the country. While I considered what to do, a seat providentially became available in someone’s van. It would have been a no-brainer for me to take it, but the vacancy happened in the vehicle of another minister I hadn’t necessarily liked.
He was a funny looking fellow whose personality was like a suitcase of novelties—buzzers, horns, whizzers, and wind-up chattering teeth—the kind of things that are supposed to make a guy fun to be around. But this man wasn’t fun. In fact, the worst part about him was how seriously he took himself, quirks and all. I would be cooped up with him for days in a van along with other aspiring ministry interns.
“You sure you want to do this?” my wife asked. “It’s cool,” I said. Then I went on to assure her how much I had grown as a Christian. Yet it wasn’t cool. After I talked myself into accepting the empty seat, hell started to break loose a little at a time. Not even thirty minutes into the trip, we had had an accident, thanks in large part to an error in my “friend’s” driving expertise.
The words “Dumb” and “Stupid” and “Careless” swam through my mind. I fought a quiet war with dark feelings in the back seat. I prayed them into submission, managing to produce one puny bud of forgiveness. We still had two-and-a-half days left to the trip.
On the second night somewhere in west Texas I got tired of the monotonous silence and wanted to turn on the radio. My friend said no. He felt the radio was a tool of the devil. I argued how silly that was. He wouldn’t budge. Contempt and resentment came surging back within me. This time I had new words for him like “Superstitious,” “Legal,” and “Weird.” I marveled at how easy it was to dislike somebody. In fact, I started disliking myself, too.
Later that night we broke down in New Mexico. I was mad (what else was new?). All six of us spent the night in the van, alternately freezing and burning up. The next morning we got a tow into Albuquerque. We’d blown the transmission, which would be a two-day repair. My friend decided to simply buy another vehicle, but he wanted a good deal, which is code for, “Tight-wad.”
That burned me up, too. While he went back and forth with the salesman, we waited an excruciating four or five hours. I had been assured of my salvation before leaving Ohio, but by Albuquerque, I wondered if I ought to answer another altar call just to make sure. My thoughts and feelings weren’t exactly holy.
We finally reached California in a new van, and even made the training on time. Each passing day, though, reminded me that round two was coming: Cross country—the Sequel. I dreaded the return trip to Ohio.
Things started out well enough as we departed under a sunny California sky, until my friend got it in his head that he wanted his old car back. That meant returning to the same dealership in Albuquerque, where he would wheel and deal with the same salesman. My kettle went on full boil. At the dealership, I paced and complained and ate several pounds of Skittles out of the vending machine.
My friend didn’t get his old car back. I couldn’t get my old Christian life back, either. This entire affair had upset the apple cart. I was officially a sinner, in need of grace. The dilemma had nothing to do with immorality or lapses in devotional spirituality. I had problems with people. I was given to dark moods of irritation and pettiness. I grumbled. I nursed grudges. I rehearsed angry speeches in my head until I polished them to a state of perfection.
By the time we pulled up in the church parking lot back in Cleveland, every one of my nerves had been gotten on. I used to be a good Christian man. Now I was just…a man. Getting out of the car, my trouser cuff caught a plastic vent handle. It broke off. No big deal, I thought. It’s just a piece of plastic. I made a perfunctory offer to replace it, the sort of thing you expect someone to refuse. Instead my friend said, “Okay.” As in, Yeah, you better believe you’ll replace it. The part cost eighty-nine dollars. On a ministry intern paycheck, that meant I would need to eat generic brands for the rest of the month. It was the trip’s final kiss-off to me, before I closed the book on the adventure.
So many years later, that Bible training is a blurry pile of outlines and paper to me. I can’t remember the topic. Apparently, academic theology wasn’t the point of the trip, anyway. The big stuff went on in that van. I had gotten a crash course in discipleship—had been challenged to obey what the Lord taught concerning how I related to others. The practice dummy (no insult intended) had been my friend, that funny lookin’ fellow.
Discipleship is not only an individual endeavor, cultivated within the soul. It is a discipline of community, a corporate exercise shared between believers. Wherever folks get together for any length of time, the need for it unfurls. We are challenged to learn love (Mt. 5:43-47), acceptance of personalities (2 Pet. 1:7), forgiveness of sins (Mt. 18:15-35), reconciliation (Mt. 5:21-26), the very things we change churches to avoid.
Remember that the next time you’re hemmed in to a van with no place to go.